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About Utah: Some food for thought: Vouchers save money

SALT LAKE CITY — Things are hopping these days on Capitol Hill. Some people are lobbying to get things passed. Some people are lobbying to stop things from getting passed.

And then there are those trying to keep passed what they already got passed.

That's what the Carson Smith Scholarship backers were about recently as they laid out a nice, healthy lunchtime spread in the rotunda for any legislators who might be hungry.

The old eat, drink and be merry — and don't forget about us when you vote — tactic.

The Carson Smith Scholarship is a euphemistic way of saying "voucher" in a state where the V word often isn't the most popular noun in the room.

Essentially, it's a program that provides public funding (vouchers) to parents of school-age children with disabilities who wish to send their children to private schools that cater to their special needs.

The first Carson Smith scholarships were awarded five years ago for the 2005-06 school year. To date, some 900 kids with special need disabilities have taken advantage of the program, with 650 enrolled this school year. That includes the scholarship's namesake, Carson Smith, an autistic youngster who recently turned 11 and can now do two significant things he couldn't do as recently as two years ago: (1) talk and (2) first grade math.

Carson's mother, Cheryl, was at the free lunch in the rotunda and paused long enough to praise a program she calls "a lifesaver."

"I'm so proud to be Carson's mom and to have his name on this," she said. "Not only did it save our family, but I get to hear feedback all the time from people I don't even know about how it's been a lifesaver for them, too."

Cheryl's story is the kind that makes you proud to live in a republic that passes laws that help people.

Six years ago, she remembered the horror she experienced when Carson was old enough to go to kindergarten and she checked into what it would cost to enroll him in the Carmen B. Pingree School for Children With Autism.

They told her tuition was $18,000.

Cheryl gulped. That was higher than an older son's yearly tuition at the University of Utah medical school. It was higher than their mortgage.

So she made another call. This one was to her duly elected state representative at the time, Morgan Philpot.

Philpot came to her home, heard her story, and the first bricks in the foundation for the Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship were laid.

"I had no political background. I wasn't even sure who I voted for, to be honest," confessed Cheryl.

And yet, here this man was, sitting in her living room, listening to her special needs.

Overcoming an initial veto by then-governor Olene Walker, the Carson Smith bill ended up getting passed and funded by the Legislature not just because it made sense for disabled kids, but because it also made fiscal sense.

Whereas it costs an average $8,200 to put a student through Utah's public school system, the Carson Smith vouchers average just $4,100 per year per student.

So the state saves a minimum $4,100 every time someone uses a voucher.

But it's still a bargain for people like the Smiths, for whom public education isn't a good fit. The vouchers don't pay their whole bill at a private school, and sometimes not even half of it, but they do help.

"We have eight children and seven of them have gone to public school, and it's been great," said Cheryl.

But for Carson it wouldn't be great.

"He's doing so well at Pingree," she said. "I can't tell you how important it's been."

That's why she was being nice to the lawmakers at lunchtime at the Capitol, joining dozens of other like-minded parents to sing the praises of a program they find easy to praise.

"I hope they don't cut our funding; that's what this is about," said Carson Smith's mom. "What it costs is a fraction of what it saves."

Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com.