This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Jayme Anderson spent most of last year at odds with her elementary school over special services for her daughter. School officials said the child qualified for special education, but when she still couldn't read by the end of first grade, Anderson sought tutoring at U Can Learn and discovered her daughter had dyslexia.
Anderson saw enough improvement after part-time tutoring to enroll her full-time for the fall. Now she hopes to defray the $1,000 monthly tuition with a Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship from the state.
As Utahns prepare to vote on whether private school tuition vouchers should be made available to all students, the state's special-needs voucher program has quietly expanded. The two-year-old program has grown threefold since its inception, but demand has yet to outpace available funds.
A legislative audit of the program, which could spend as much as $2.4 million on more than 400 students this year, should begin this fall. But because Utah doesn't track the achievement of voucher recipients, the report likely will focus largely on participation.
Eight other states have adopted or considered similar programs, despite caution from disability advocates who've found scant evidence they help students.
But voucher supporters insist parents are the best judges of how well schools are working. And Utah taxpayers will have to take their word for it because the state collects even less information about its special-needs scholarship recipients than Florida, which was recently chastised for its dearth of data.
Florida's McKay program
Florida enacted McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities, the nation's first and largest special-needs voucher program, in 2000. Today, more than 18,000 students receive $119 million in McKay vouchers.
Yet Florida collects almost no data to gauge how well the program is working, according to a June analysis from Education Sector, a Washington, D.C.-based education think tank.
"It is virtually impossible to say whether special-needs children using McKay vouchers to attend private schools are faring better, worse or about the same as they had in their old public schools," the report said. "McKay schools are not required to report any information on student outcomes."
Utah is like Florida in that schools that accept special-needs scholarships do not have to provide any special services to students. They simply must explain their services to parents.
Of more than 53,500 special-needs children in Utah public schools, roughly 300 received Carson Smith scholarships last year, "which I think says a lot about the job our public schools are doing," said Rep. Merlynn Newbold, R-South Jordan, who sponsored the bill creating the program.
More than half the recipients attended schools that cater specifically to students with disabilities, such as the Carmen B. Pingree School for Children with Autism.
The school, an arm of Valley Mental Health, maintains a 2-1 student-teacher ratio. Children benefit from two staff speech therapists and class lessons that address each child's behavioral challenges.
Of the other 32 schools approved to accept Carson Smith students - all on the Wasatch Front - many list only smaller classes when asked what services they offer students with special needs.
"Our mission is not really a special-needs school," said Laurie Bragg of Realms of Inquiry, a private school for high achievers that had 12 Carson Smith students last year. Those students benefit from "things that all kids have here - small classes are a huge part of it."
What vouchers buy
A lack of special services doesn't seem to bother parents. Surveys have found ample proof that vouchers boost parental satisfaction, despite little evidence they improve student achievement.
In Utah, officials who work with scholarship applicants said most families either keep their children in private school or change their minds early on. Parents often rethink their move toward private school once they realize the voucher doesn't cover full tuition or they discover limited services, they said.
"I've had some parents call and say, 'Can you make this private school do this or this?' " said Nancy Ward of Jordan School District's special-education department.
Salt Lake's MaryBeth Clark said her fourth-grader made enough progress in one year at U Can Learn to return to public school for fifth grade. Yet anecdotes such as hers are the only proof parents and taxpayers will see because Utah doesn't track achievement of Carson Smith students.
Caveats of school choice
Voucher supporters say parents are most qualified to choose the best schools for their children.
But a lack of data can undermine their ability to make informed choices. A 2005 survey revealed many parents of Florida's special-needs children felt they didn't have enough accurate, comparable information to choose a school.
Plus, "parents sometimes insist on choosing poor-quality schools," noted the Education Sector report, citing several examples of schools that remained popular despite poor academic performance. "This suggests that accountability to parents alone is insufficient to protect the public interest or ensure taxpayer money is used well."
Voucher programs can spur the creation of new specialty schools by increasing the number of families who can afford tuition. U Can Learn founder Karla Jay said the Carson Smith program was "the whole motivation" for turning her learning center into a full-fledged school.
But bad eggs inevitably emerge with the good. This week Florida began a second trial against two sisters accused of using their Faith Christian Academy to steal as much as $100,000 from the state's voucher program.
Voucher fears dispelled
Yet the Education Sector report also dispelled some voucher fears. It found little evidence of discrimination based on ethnicity, income or severity of disability.
The ethnic and economic breakdown of McKay students roughly mirrors the state's special-education population, the report found. And one-third of Florida's private schools accept McKay students, whose range of disabilities mirror the statewide population.
However, such analyses will be impossible in Utah.
The state doesn't have race, ethnic or economic information for Carson Smith students who weren't previously enrolled in public schools. Information about the specific disabilities of voucher recipients is also lacking. The law creating the program classifies students only on whether they require more or fewer than three hours of special services per day.
"The State Office [of Education] believes that we've done what legislators [asked us] to do," said Travis Rawlings, state education specialist for the special-needs scholarship. "We've found schools to meet criteria and facilitated payments."
Arizona also offers special-needs vouchers and Georgia enacted a new program this year. Ohio has a program for autistic children but the governor vetoed a broader proposal this year. Proposals in at least five other states also failed.
Since 2003, the National Council on Disability has discouraged expansion of such programs without more evidence that they work. Advocates who've spent decades fighting to hold public schools accountable for educating disabled students say under-regulated voucher programs could undermine those gains.
"The lack of accountability in the McKay program is a giant step backward," the Education Sector report said.
And parents dissatisfied with the services in private schools have little recourse. To receive a voucher, parents must waive their rights to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), meaning they can't demand services their child needs.
The author of Florida's McKay program envisioned it as an alternative to long and costly IDEA lawsuits. But private schools operating beyond the reach of both IDEA and the Americans with Disabilities Act remain a chief concern among disability advocates.
"There are not any procedural safeguards or protections for students who opt out of [public] programs," said Martin Gould, National Council on Disability's director of research and technology.
* Who is eligible: Any child who qualifies for a public school "individualized education program."
* What recipients get: $3,771 for children requiring fewer than three hours of special education per day; $6,285 for students needing more hours.
* Learn more about the program by visiting http://www.usoe.k12.ut.us and selecting "Special Needs Scholarship" from the Programs menu on the left.
* Read the Education Sector's report on Florida's McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities at http://www.educationsector.org.