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Parents denied vouchers may soon have way to appeal

Parents denied one of Utah's premiere private school tuition vouchers for students with disabilities soon could have a way to appeal.

Parents wanting a Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship would be able to appeal denials to a committee under a rule that received preliminary approval from the State Board of Education.

Final board approval is expected in the next several weeks.

The committee would include the state's scholarship coordinator and special education director and a board-appointed special education advocate.

Appeals would have to center on points outside the law, said Larry Shumway, who is overseeing the scholarships program at the State Office of Education.

For instance, the law says preschoolers can't have the scholarship; that can't be appealed.

The law also sets application deadlines, but also gives the state board flexibility. So, Shumway said, deadline denials could — and are expected to — be appealed.

"We're saying, we all recognize there will be some unusual circumstances," state board chairman Kim Burningham said. "I do think (an appeals process) will make some of the concerned people feel a little more comfortable, and I believe it is a reasonable course of action."

But a group advocating for the voucher program says the rule creates more hoops for parents to jump through.

"The practical matter is, there's a much simpler, cleaner solution to this than putting together a committee," said Royce Van Tassell, spokesman for Education Excellence Utah.

"The board has authority to waive the deadline . . . if that's what this is about," he said. "Just say, if circumstances warrant, let's be understanding here. Let's just use the money for the purpose it was set aside for."

Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarships offer around $5,500, depending on the level of special education services the student is entitled to receive under federal law, to parents sending children with disabilities to private schools.

The state has awarded 128 current-year scholarships — 10 more are pending — and 78 retroactive scholarships, some to the same people.

Forty-three applications were denied, Shumway said, often because children were not public-school age, or not eligible for special education, or because the schools they wanted to attend didn't meet state eligibility requirements.