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Disability ed vouchers go begging

Fewer children with disabilities receive aid than were expected

Parents have received more than $1 million in government aid to send children with disabilities to private schools under the state's premiere education voucher program, the State Office of Education reports.

Parents say the scholarships, for which they fought for two years, are an answer to their prayers.

But at the same time, public schools are shouldering a $600,000 budget cut because fewer children participated in the program than estimated.

A handful of districts contacted Tuesday can't pinpoint exactly how the cuts have affected them. But they say they struggle to meet growing special education needs with already tight budgets and need every dollar they can get.

"We're just trying to keep a smile on our face and do what's right and work hard on that," said J. Lynn Jones, director of special education and federal programs in Nebo District. "We sure hope that with extra money in the (state schools) budget, (we) will see more come back to us and help us out."

Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarships, named after a boy attending the $23,000-a-year Carmen B. Pingree School for Children With Autism, are aimed at helping parents choose the schools that best fit their children's needs.

Lawmakers gave $2.6 million for this year's scholarships, plus $1.4 million in retroactive scholarships. The money came from general, and not school, funds. People have to use them or lose them. And most of them have been, or will be, lost.

Of the $1.4 million in the retroactive scholarship fund, about $305,000 is expected to go out in scholarships.

In current-year scholarships, $640,100 of $2.6 million is expected to find its way to parents, with another $100,000 going to program administration.

That leaves about $3 million unspent, the State Office of Education reports.

In all, the state has awarded 128 current-year scholarships of varying amounts — the ceiling is just over $5,500. Ten more are expected to be approved, said Larry Shumway, who is overseeing the program at the State Office of Education. Another 78 retroactive scholarships were approved, some to the same people, he said.

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 (a sore spot among advocates, who disagree with the criteria the state school board created).

There's little chance more scholarships will go out this school year.

"There's not a lot of capacity in eligible schools now," Shumway said. "I think there have been a lot of parents who are grateful for the help. Schools and parents and districts worked very well together to help this program get off the ground."

Scholarship advocates, including Education Excellence Utah, have criticized the State School Board for taking until July to set rules on which schools can accept scholarship students. They say that could have affected the number of parents applying.

Still, parents are thrilled the scholarships finally are here.

"What this has done is make it a little more feasible (to choose schools) based on what he needs — not what we can afford," said Laura Anderson, whose son, Ty, attends the Pingree school. "We were able to pay off this year's tuition. I can't tell you what a relief it is. . . . I don't have to worry through the holidays, do I do Christmas or do I do tuition, which actually happened last year. It's taken a load off our family."

But there's another issue at hand: Fewer than half of this school year's scholarship recipients transferred from public to private schools. That matters in terms of money for public schools' special education programs.

Public schools are largely funded through weighted pupil units, which are tied to the number of students in each program. WPUs are formula driven and complex. But the premise is, if a school has 500 students, it gets 500 WPUs from the state. If it has just 400 students next year, it gets only 400 WPUs.

So, if special education students are expected to leave the public school system under Carson Smith scholarships, then the schools don't need as many WPUs.

The schools' budget was cut $903,300 to make way for the scholarships. But only one-third of that cost savings was realized, the State Office of Education reports.

Sixty-three students transferred from public to private schools under the scholarship program. That equals $301,200 in state per-pupil spending, State Associate Superintendent Patrick Ogden said.

That means public schools basically are getting $600,000 less to educate nearly as many kids.

"School districts receive their allocations based on students served," state special education director Karl Wilson said. "So reducing that funding . . . is of concern."

Wilson says the cut could affect districts' ability to expand services, but he's not sure how it actually shook out.

Jordan District estimates 32 scholarship students live in its boundaries, said Cal Evans, district executive director for compliance and special programs. So there, the law's budgetary affects are a wash.

But no Nebo or San Juan students are known to have taken the scholarship. So those districts, for example, logically would take a hit.

San Juan District already scrapes to fill in federal funding shortfalls and entice teachers and other specialists to take jobs in the remote school district, special education programs director Anthony Done said. And when it comes to accessing the scholarships, San Juan parents are pretty much out of luck.

"It seems the private schools are located along the Wasatch Front," Done said. "Unless they send their child away to live with relatives, they're really inaccessible to our parents."

The State Board of Education will ask lawmakers to restore the $903,300 that was cut, state associate superintendent Patrick Ogden said.

The woman who carried the scholarships law backs that request.

"They should get it . . . we'll be working to help them," said Rep. Merlynn Newbold, R-South Jordan.

"It's a new program and we're feeling our way through it," she said. "I think now that we know, we have knowledge to work on instead of a forecast or presumption, and I think we can make it right."

Newbold says she will seek to reinvest the lapsed money back into the scholarship program, too.

She also has requested a bill regarding special education funding. She would not provide specifics. But she said a committee of state and local special education experts and a handful of legislators have been exploring special education program needs. Recommendations will be central to the legislation.

"I think we've pretty well identified the problems," Newbold said. "Now, the solution is the hard part."