Utah has become the first state to offer every public school student a tuition voucher that could be used to attend a private school—a move that school choice advocates hope will embolden other states to embrace universal-voucher programs.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. signed the voucher bill into law yesterday.
The legislation, the product of a six-year statehouse battle, would provide every public school student who wanted one a voucher worth $500 per year, while low-income children would receive as much as $3,000 a year. To ease the financial loss to public schools, districts for five years would retain a portion of the state funding they would otherwise lose for each student who transferred to a private school, which could be secular or religious.
The bill, which won approval by one vote in the Utah House on Feb. 2 and passed easily in the state Senate on Feb. 9, would require legislators to set aside enough money each year to meet the demand. State analysts predict the state would spend $9.3 million on vouchers in the next budget year, which means the state expects that about 3,000 students would receive vouchers the first year.
“This is not a response to failing schools. This is a response to people who believe it’s their right to choose,” said Robert C. Enlow, the executive director of the Indianapolis-based Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, which promotes school choice. “This shows that universal school choice can pass. Now that you’ve had one state do it, you’re going to see other states do it as well.”
So far, states have enacted only limited voucher programs aimed at students who have special needs, attend failing schools, or live in a particular city.
Under the Utah plan, students currently enrolled in private schools wouldn’t be eligible to receive the vouchers unless they were from low-income families who qualify for reduced-price lunch. That provision was a compromise agreed to by voucher supporters to hold down the price tag and make the legislation more palatable to the legislature, where Republicans control both chambers and where the House has scuttled vouchers in the past.
Gov. Huntsman, a Republican, had three stipulations before he would support the bill, said Christine Kearl, his educa-tion deputy. They were that public schools be held financially harmless, that state money for the program come from the general fund, and that low-income children get additional help.
Per-Pupil Spending Cited
The legislation passed despite fierce opposition from public school groups, which fear the program would drain re-sources from school districts. By the state office of education’s own admission, Utah’s per-pupil spending ranked below every other state and the District of Columbia, at $4,860 in 2003.
“It is unbelievable that a state that is dead last in per-pupil spending would create an entitlement program for private schools that is richer than any other in the United States,” Kim Campbell, the president of the 18,000-member Utah Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said in a statement.
Still others objected to the fierce marketing campaigns from school choice groups in the weeks leading up to the vote, including billboards and radio ads by the Salt Lake City-based Parents for Choice in Education.
“We’ve been inundated with propaganda from outside of the state. Our schools are not failing like other parts of the country,” said Rep. Kory M. Holdaway, a Republican who voted against the bill, during debate on the House floor.
The Washington-based People for the American Way, which has challenged the constitutionality of voucher programs elsewhere, believes there’s “little question” that the bill would violate the Utah Constitution because it would send public money to religious institutions, said Judith Schaeffer, the group’s associate legal director.
But the Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Va.-based organization that helps defend voucher programs in court, ar-gued in a statement that the Utah Supreme Court has already okayed “religiously-neutral” public programs.
In Utah, a voucher program for special-needs students, enacted in 2005, hasn’t been challenged.
The new Utah legislation also comes at a time when vouchers are back on the national stage. The Bush administration wants to devote $250 million in the fiscal 2008 budget to scholarships for low-income students who attend struggling schools—something the Democratic-controlled Congress is unlikely to allow. States such as Georgia and South Carolina are also considering voucher programs.
Utah is, in some ways, an unusual venue for a sweeping voucher program. The state has only a small private-school sector. Some 3 percent of the school-age population, or about 15,000 students, is enrolled in about 100 private schools, with an average tuition of about $3,800 per year. Nationally, 10 percent of K-12 students attend private school.
The lack of private schools appears due, in large part, to the fact that roughly 60 percent of Utah’s 2.5 million residents are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormon Church, based in Salt Lake City, operates no private schools in Utah, said a church spokeswoman, Kim Farah. The church has taken no position on the voucher bill, she added. There’s room for existing private schools to absorb about 6,000 more students, according to a 2004 Utah State University study.
Leah Barker, who is the executive director of Children First Utah, a privately financed tuition-voucher program for low-income families, said the 75 private schools she works with have been adding grades to accommodate growth. For the current school year, 375 vouchers were awarded, but 2,000 students applied. “The schools I work with want to grow—they’re just cautious,” she said.
The 14 Catholic schools in Utah have room for about 200 more students, said Sister Catherine Kamphaus, the superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. She said the vouchers especially may benefit Hispanic students who might attend Catholic schools but often can’t afford it.
Proponents of private school choice see clear demand. They point to the nearly 20,000 students in Utah’s 51 charter schools, and the lengthy waiting lists for those public but largely independent schools. They also point to the 8,540 students who were home-schooled last year, according state statistics.
Elisa Peterson, the executive director of the Parents for Choice in Education group, said: “Clearly, there are parents out there looking for something else for their children.”