As the media and public begin to focus more on taxpayer funding for government schools, one program with very little funding has had an enormous impact on the education those with special needs—an important demographic of children who can often be forgotten in government schools.
The Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship was established in 2005 by action of the Utah Legislature and the signature of Governor Jon Huntsman. It provides private school scholarships to K-12 students who have a wide variety of special needs. With a current appropriation of only about $5 million, it serves over 900 children who can then get the specialized education that they need from the institution of their parents’ choice.
Bearing the name of the son of one of the program’s greatest advocates, Cheryl Smith, the program has steadily grown since its inception and is administered by the Utah State Office of Education. The success of the program has been well documented in legislative hearings and reports. Some important statistics include:
- 100% of parents who have used the program feel it should continue.
- 89% of parents say their child’s academic performance has improved while at a Carson Smith school.
- 91% say their private school provides services specifically for their child’s disability. Only 21% felt the same about their former public school.
Students with disabilities like autism greatly benefit from the specialized services these schools offer. Carson Smith, for example, was able to say his first word at age 10 with the help of the Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning. Too often, students like Carson end up stuck in the funnel of government schools where a one-size-fits-all approach is severely lacking, and leaves many children behind. The Carson Smith Scholarship allows these students to be lifted out of that situation and into one that is designed for and helpful to their specific learning needs.
This program shows that using a similar per-pupil spending level in Utah ($7,000 per student) can allow a family to engage in the life-changing education services for their child. Extreme measures like tax increases are not necessary as long as the state properly prioritizes K-12 education spending in its budget. The Utah Legislature should not only continue to fund this program, but find ways to expand it to more children who could benefit from the flexibility, customization, and opportunity.
In time, a program like the Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship should serve as a model for a similarly innovative funding model for all of Utah students.