Carson Smith Scholarship
The Carson Smith Scholarship program is a voucher system through which students with special needs can use some of the state government funds allocated for their education to pay all or part of a private school tuition. Created in 2005, the voucher served 108 students in its first year and has grown rapidly. Today it’s awarded to over 900 students annually.
The scholarship is available for students who suffer from one or more of a list of special needs, including hearing impairment, autism, developmental delay and speech impairment, and who, under federal disability rules, qualify for special education help at school. The amount of the voucher depends on the number of hours of special education the student receives at school and is a multiple of the weighted pupil unit that the state uses to fund all public school students. The average voucher amount is $4,900.
Schools that receive these voucher funds must apply to and be approved by the state. There are over 40 such schools operating in Utah.
Funds to pay the scholarships are set by the state Legislature, and if applicants exceed funds available, then a lottery is held to determine which students receive help. In 2013, responding to demand for the voucher and in an effort to reduce the need for a lottery, the Legislature made changes to how the Carson Smith Scholarship is funded. Rather than a fixed dollar amount each year, the scholarship fund is to be increased annually based on a formula taking into account overall demand from within the special education student population. This doesn’t guarantee there won’t be a lottery selection, but it does ease some of the demand pressure and allows for this popular program to expand slowly and deliberately.
And the voucher has been extremely popular. A couple of years after the voucher program was created the Legislature commissioned a performance audit of the program, and auditors found parents of children receiving the voucher funds overwhelmingly approved of the program and of the schools they were able to attend.
Utah Citizen Network: Vouchers
Utah State Board of Education: Carson Smith Scholarships
EdChoice: Carson Smith Scholarship
Performance Audit: Carson Smith Scholarship for Students with Special Needs
Deseret News: Bill to Expand Funding for Carson Smith Scholarships