Governor Herbert’s Veto Hurts Special Needs Children

Today, Governor Herbert vetoed a bill helping families with special needs students. It’s April 1, but sadly this was not a prank.

Sponsored by Representative Mike Schultz, House Bill 332 was passed by the Utah Legislature last month. It sought to create an individual/corporate income tax credit that would be used to fund a new scholarship program for special needs students—offering families a fiscally prudent option to receive education services that the public school system in not always able to provide.

Here’s how it would have worked: a family who felt their special needs child would be better served outside of the school system would have been able to obtain funding—from non-profit scholarship granting organizations that would receive donations from taxpayers—to pay for educational therapies, a tutor, private school tuition, etc. It was a flexible approach to help meet the specific needs of each qualifying special needs child.

It would have also been a net savings to the state—which is why vetoing the bill makes no sense in today’s uncertain economic climate. As qualifying children take advantage of this program, they would only receive a portion—not all—of the funding that was being allocated for their education in the school system. The remainder of the money would be left for the schools to use to service the needs of other children.

Defending his veto, Herbert said this:

“I am concerned that the narrative surrounding this bill was about removing students with special needs out of the public education system, rather than supporting our students within their community schools. While it is helpful to provide options for students with special needs, special education federal law and best practice require that children with special needs be served whenever possible in an inclusive environment, alongside their typically developing peers.”

We believe that parents—not school administrators or elected officials—are in the best position to determine what the “best practice” is for their children. And while many special needs students are sufficiently served by the local government school, this is not the case for all—yet the Governor appears to be more concerned with keeping students in the government system than empowering families to pursue the opportunities that best meet their needs. 

And nothing in “special education federal law” prohibits or prevents what HB 332 proposed.  Indeed, many other states have implemented this type of program to support special needs families, who aren’t always served by the one-size-fits-all model that constrains public schools. It’s very disappointing that, as a result of Governor Herbert’s veto, Utah families are left behind, and special needs children are denied this opportunity.

COVID-19 has clearly shown the need for education models that adapt to changing needs and provide flexibility for families in different circumstances. In that regard, HB 332 was ahead of the curve. The future of education includes more customization and family empowerment—not less.

It’s long past time for Utah to create a special needs scholarship. HB 332 would have done so in a way that leaves public schools with increased per-pupil funding while providing new hope and opportunity for students and their parents.

These types of programs for special needs students have been very successful in other states like Arizona and Florida. Utah families need these kinds of opportunities for their special needs children in order to provide the best education possible.

Utah, however, will still fall behind—for now.