At a time of year when our country celebrates our freedom and independence and the promise first made on this continent that all, regardless of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit to the utmost, I am especially grateful for that promise when it comes to the education of my son, Ty.
Finding an educational environment that is a good fit for special needs children is no easy task. Their needs are very specific and unique. Helping them develop their individual powers of mind and spirit can be a challenge.
I know, because I am the mother of a child with special needs. Public schools try their best. For many children, our educators do a great job, and that option is a good fit. However, for many others it is not.
Parents should be able to choose the best educational environment for their child in order to help that child progress and flourish. They know their child better than anyone and are best equipped to make those decisions.
The great news is that, here in Utah, parents of children with special needs do have a choice. They can choose a public school or they can choose a private school with the help of the Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship.
This scholarship was signed into law by Gov. Jon Huntsman in 2005 and allows children with a qualifying Individualized Education Program to receive a scholarship to be used at one of the 48 private schools serving special needs students across the state.
As more and more parents have been made aware of this option, the program has grown. This year, it will serve approximately 650 children.
Satisfaction with the Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship is very high.
According to a mandatory 2008 legislative audit, "Parents of students currently receiving, or who have received, the Carson Smith Scholarship are overwhelmingly in favor of the program and find it a success."
The audit found that 100 percent of parents who have used the program feel it should continue, and 89 percent of parents said their child's academic performance has improved while at the private school they chose to attend with the scholarship.
I am one of those satisfied parents who used the Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship for my son, Ty. When it became evident that the public school was unable to provide the intensive special education services that Ty was going to need, I found a private school that could.
The Carson Smith Scholarship made it possible for our family to keep Ty in the private school long enough for him to receive the interventions he needed to be able to return to a public school setting. Ty is now thriving in a functional skills classroom at Millcreek Junior High. I am convinced this would not have been possible without the teaching techniques of the private school and the support of the Carson Smith Scholarship.
Many of the parents I talk with share similar experiences.
Liz Wall, of Park City, recently shared this with me: "My daughter Lottie has benefited greatly from the Carson Smith Scholarship. Lottie came to us with Down syndrome. She was entered into the public school special needs program.
"Although it is a wonderful program, it was not the right fit for our daughter. The Carson Smith Scholarship has allowed us to take advantage of a local private school where Lottie is thriving academically and socially.
"The scholarship provides an option that works for our daughter."
Cheryl Smith, whose son is the namesake of the Carson Smith Scholarship program, often reminds us that we didn't choose for our children to have disabilities, but we can choose what will help them the most.
This program empowers parents of children with special needs with the opportunity to find the best educational environment to meet their child's unique needs, whether public or private.
When children reach their full potential, everybody wins. I am thankful to live in a state that recognizes this and offers my family a choice through the Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship.
Enrollment for the 2009-10 school year is happening now. July 1 is the enrollment deadline for an entire year's scholarships; however, enrollment can take place throughout the entire year. For parents of students with special needs who want to learn more about the Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship and how to apply, they can go to www.CarsonSmithScholarship.org or contact me at (801) 637-4111 or email@example.com.
Laura Anderson is the Carson Smith coordinator for Parents for Choice in Education and the mother of Ty, a child with special needs.