Utah Passes School Choice Voucher Program

It certainly wasn’t unanimous; there was plenty of objection that the decision would cripple Utah’s public schools, but Utah school choice is coming to a school near you.

By Rick Gonzales | Published

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It certainly wasn’t unanimous; there was plenty of objection that the decision would cripple Utah’s public schools, but Utah school choice is coming to a school near you. Regardless of the fact that the state’s public schools are among the least funded across the nation, Utah lawmakers just approved a bill allowing students and families the ability to take their public school funds with them when they transfer to a Utah private school.

What this bill, House Bill 331, amounts to is a school voucher program. It comes from the desk of Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, and gives school choice to Utah students. “Regardless of their zip code or income, every kid should have choices to best serve their educational needs,” Pierucci said via The Salt Lake Tribune. “This bill is about empowerment, customization, and fairness.”

Conservative parent groups across the state have been behind this bill, seeing it as a way to give Utah more school choice, which includes homeschooling, to be funded by taxpayers’ dollars, just like public school funding. While there was staunch support on the outside, inside the Utah legislature, the bill barely passed the House committee by a 6-5 vote.

So, what exactly would HB 331 entail? How would it go down in the state? Bear with us and the technicalities for a moment. Now, in Utah, each and every student in a public school, K-12, is counted as a weighted pupil unit (WPU) that is given to a charter or district based on its enrollment numbers. For instance, if 2,500 kids enroll in a specific school, that school would get the monetary value of 2,500 WPUs. At the present time, an individual WPU (or student) has a state value (set by the state) of around $3,900.

So, because the WPUs are from the state and funded by taxpayers, the monies are currently only handed over to public schools. None of these funds, presently, call for Utah school choice. This new bill will change all of that. Under HB331, if a family decides to take their children to a private school, or even keep them home for homeschooling, instead of enrolling them in their local public school, the WPU credit will follow them as a scholarship. Pierucci calls this the Hope Scholarship Program.

But the scholarship program is not without its controversy, which is one reason for the narrow 6-5 vote. The bill would allow financial help for families to afford private schools if that is what they feel is the best avenue for their child. But what makes the bill skeptical in some opinions, is that the funds given out are granted based on a family’s income level. This means that families who make less would be awarded much more money.

As an example as to what this would look like – if a four-person household makes up to $53,000 in combined income (considered at or below the 200% of the poverty level), they would receive a scholarship that would equate to two times the already set WPU. That would be around $7,800 per kid, roughly double what they presently get in Utah’s public school system.

This money is taken from Utah’s public-school fund. The fear by many is that it would drain the public-school fund by allowing Utah school choice, leaving little to nothing for those children and families who wish to stay in public schools. As one mom said during the committee meeting, “Let’s fix our public education system and stop diverting the public funds away from it.”

Another concern with the total money a scholarship potentially would fund is that even the highest amount is not enough to cover the total tuition amount seen at many private schools throughout the state. The tuition average is around $11,000 with many private schools costing much more.

If taking your child to a private school isn’t what a parent feels best for their kid, Utah school choice does provide options. The funds can also be used toward the cost of homeschooling as well as private tutoring. If the money is going to be used for homeschooling, the bill explicitly states that the funds cannot be used to pay the parent to be the educator. Instead, the money is to be used for textbooks or any other homeschool curriculum.

Supporters of the bill love the idea of Utah school choice. Pierucci notes that some children thrive in the public school system while others shine in private schools. She recognizes that most kids are not a one-size-fits-all model, and this was the reason for the bill. “The last few years have shown that a one-size approach really hasn’t worked for every child,” she said.

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But there are those who oppose the bill, saying it will destroy the public school system. One father says he has studied the school voucher programs other states have implemented, claiming they just don’t work. Unsurprisingly, the Utah Board of Education opposes the bill, claiming that it could be in violation of state law. They say that state law forbids public education monies to end up in the coffers of private religious institutions.

One mother, a former teacher, says the passage of this bill would only hurt public schools. She says that the Utah public schools are both reasonable and affordable options for most of the children in the state. The keyword there, though, is “most.”

Of the bill’s passage, two Republicans joined the Democrats in the 6-5 vote. Next, HB331 will go to the House for a full vote. If it gets passed there, the fully approved program would then give a Utah school choice to parents beginning in Fall 2023.