Utah Capitol 25

When Utah legislators meet, again, in special session Thursday, the special needs private school program vetoed by GOP Gary Herbert will be amended and passed, it’s sponsor, House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, tells UtahPolicy.com.

Herbert’s veto of HB332 was the most controversial of his post-general-session actions. Schultz called for a veto override, but that won’t be necessary with the compromises Schultz has struck with Herbert’s office, Schultz said Monday.

Whether Herbert will actually support the amended HB332 or not, Shultz, R-Hooper, said his office “is good with what we’ve worked out,” and there won’t be another gubernatorial veto.

The compromise does several things, said Schultz:

  • There will be a “means test” so wealthy Utahns won’t get the same “scholarship” money that less-well-off Utahns with special needs kids will.
  • There will be a feasibility test/study in two years, with increased monitoring of private school special need programs and the children’s’ progress.
  • And after that study, the current Carson Smith special needs scholarship program will be blended into Schultz’s HB332 program -- so the state has just one program for special needs kids whose parents want to put them into a private school situation, and not in public schools.

“I really like the means test,” Schultz told UtahPolicy.com. “It was something we should have done” in the original bill.

By giving less money to wealthy families, more low-to-middle-income Utahns can be accommodated into the new program, he said -- with upwards of 800 to 900 kids being helped each year.

Basically, it will work like this:

  • Families at 185 percent of the federal poverty level or lower will get 2.5 WPU value for their special needs child or around $9,000 a year in state aid.
  • Families between 185-555 percent of the federal poverty level, or who make $48,000 to $144,000 a year, will get $7,000.
  • And those above 555 percent of the federal poverty level will get up to $5,000 in state aid to place their child in a private special needs program.

The state will put aside $6 million annually for the new program, the same amount as was in the original HB332, said Schultz.

A number of education groups asked Herbert to veto the bill, citing various reasons, including what they said were duplications with the current Carson Smith program.

But political commentators said one of the real reasons for the opposition was that HB332 looks a lot like the private school voucher program passed by the GOP Legislator back in 2007.

Pro-education groups, especially the Utah Education Association, the main teacher union, quickly got organized in 2007, ran a successful referendum petition, and citizens repealed vouchers back then, saying Utah taxpayer funds should go to public schools.

Opponents of HB332 claimed it was a pro-voucher program, if only for special needs children, and that the state should keep control of special needs children education.

But Schultz and his GOP legislative supporters said public special needs programs have not served many disabled children well at all, and that private schools, with more tailored help, could do a better job. And that income shouldn’t stop a family from doing what’s best for their special needs child.

“This is a better bill now with these changes,” said Schultz.