Parents to Utah lawmakers: Don't forget special-needs kids
Education • Parents lobbied legislators to expand scholarships for special needs students.
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One by one, parents of children with special needs tearfully approached lawmakers Tuesday with two messages: thank you and we need more help.

"We don't expect you to give us the moon," said Cheryl Smith —one of a number of parents who urged lawmakers Tuesday to support SB103 to expand Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarships, a program named after her son Carson, now 14. "We [take out a second] mortgage [on] our house and sell our cars because we're so desperate as parents to make sure our kids have the best life."

It was a message the Senate Education Committee took to heart Tuesday, voting unanimously to advance SB103 to the Senate floor. The scholarship, which was started in 2005, awards an average of $5,400 to students with special needs to help them attend private schools. The bill would put about $400,000 to $500,000 more toward the program next school year and additional money in following years, based on a formula, allowing it to grow to serve more students over time.

Recently, parents have had to win a lottery to get the money, with dollars for the program limited. State Superintendent Martell Menlove said $400,000 would have been enough to cover everyone who wanted the scholarship recently —more than 70 additional students. Last year, 715 scholarships were awarded.

"That's a very challenging event when you're a parent and you have a special needs child that needs help," said bill sponsor Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, of the current need for a lottery.

Public schools are required to serve all children, including those with special needs, but some feel they can get better special education services at certain private schools.

The bill attracted little opposition Tuesday, with only one woman rising to speak against it. Lynda Simmons, formerly principal of the Granite District's Hartvigsen School for children with special needs in Salt Lake City, worried that the program violates the separation of church and state because some of the money goes toward helping special needs children attend religious schools.

"I think that's a misuse of funds," Simmons said. "I really feel strongly this is not a separation of church and state."

Simmons, however, was followed by a long line of speakers who told stories of how the program has helped them. Parents for Choice in Education urged Utahns to attend the hearing Tuesday to show their support for SB103.

Kathleen Grove, who works at Layton Christian Academy, said the scholarship has financially helped her family and her son, who she said has a social and behavioral disorder.

"I appreciate the scholarship," said her son Michael Grove, 13. "It has helped me a whole lot and I wish that it will continue to go on."

Brittany Pardon of Lehi said her 5-year-old son was physically aggressive before he was able to get services. He now attends the Carmen B. Pingree Center for Children with Autism in Salt Lake City, with help from the scholarship.

"We got ourselves into quite a bit of debt trying to get him the services he needs," Pardon said, her voice shaking with emotion. "Now we have a peaceful, calm home."

She said with a yearly cost of $29,000, the $7,000 her family gets from the scholarship, in addition to financial aid from the school, helps tremendously.

Tricia Nelson of Riverton, said her son, who stopped speaking at the age of 2 and was diagnosed with autism, said her family won the scholarship and then lost it. She said losing the lottery was "devastating" to her family and difficult for her son who had to change programs as a result.

Her family was grateful to win the scholarship back. "It has been such a tremendous difference in his life to be able to get the services he needs," Nelson told committee members.

The bill now moves to the Senate floor, where lawmakers will have to vote on it twice before it may proceed to the House.

lschencker@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lschencker —