Utah appears poised to 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 would embolden other states to embrace universal-voucher programs.
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 but was expected to pass easily in the state Senate, 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 publicly funded voucher programs aimed only 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 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. Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican, would likely sign the legislation if it cleared both houses, said Christine Kearl, his education deputy. He had three stipulations, which have generally been met, she said: 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.
The Senate was expected to approve the measure as early as the end of this week.
Per-Pupil Spending Cited
The legislation has gotten this far despite fierce opposition from public school groups, which fear the program would drain resources 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.
Existing publicly funded voucher programs target particular student populations, such as those with special needs or those in certain cities. Five states—Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island—also offer personal and corporate tax credits for scholarship or voucher programs.
Children in foster care can get vouchers of up to $5,000 per year; those with disabilities get the equivalent of what the state would have allocated for the student.
District of Columbia
The Opportunity Scholarship Program, overseen by the U.S. Department of Education, provides vouchers of up to $7,500 to students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. In 2005-06, 1,716 students received vouchers.
Students with disabilities are eligible for vouchers that ranged from $4,805 to $20,703 in the 2005-06 school year; 16,812 students received vouchers.
Cleveland—Families are eligible for up to $3,450 to send their children to a private school. In 2005-06, 5,813 students received the vouchers. Students with autism—Students are eligible for up to $20,000 per year to receive services from a private provider, including a private school. In 2004-05, 270 students received vouchers. Failing schools—Vouchers of up to $5,000 are available to students who attend schools under state-labeled “academic watch” or “academic emergency” for two of the last three years. This school year, 2,193 students received vouchers; the cap is 14,000.
Students with disabilities are eligible for vouchers under a formula that in the 2005-06 school year allowed up to $5,700 per student. That year, 138 students received them.
Students in Milwaukee who meet low-income guidelines are eligible for the equivalent of the state-share of per-pupil funding for the district, which this year is $6,501. This school year, 17,275 students received vouchers; the statewide cap is 22,500.
Source: Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation
“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.
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 is seeking $250 million in the fiscal 2008 budget for scholarships for low-income students who attend struggling schools. States such as Georgia and South Carolina are also considering voucher programs.
Small Private Sector
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.
There’s room for existing private schools to absorb about 6,000 more students, according to a 2004 Utah State University study.
Leah Barker, 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 added grades to accommodate growth. For the current school year, 375 vouchers were awarded, but 2,000 students applied.
The 14 Roman Catholic schools in Utah have room for about 200 more students, said Sister Catherine Kamphaus, the superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Salt Lake City. She said the vouchers especially would benefit Hispanic students who might attend Catholic schools but often can’t afford it.
Proponents of private school choice 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 note that 8,540 students 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.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as Utah’s Broad Voucher Plan Would Break New Ground