SALT LAKE CITY — Under a proposal coming to the 2023 Utah Legislature, the state would hire a contractor to manage an education “scholarship” program to funnel public funds to parent applicants for home schooling, charter schools, tutoring and related purposes.
It’s an updated twist in an area long pursued by conservative advocates, tapping public school system funding for private education — but it has new life after turmoil erupted in public education during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Remote classes, mask mandates and other aspects of public schooling in the height of the pandemic meant that “parents suddenly were not so happy with the education options they had,” Allison Sorensen, executive director of the Farmington-based nonprofit Education Opportunity for Every Child, said Wednesday.
Sorensen is heading an effort involving various conservative advocacy groups to enact their UT-Fits Scholarship program. A bill is being drafted and will be introduced early in next year’s legislative session, she said.
The measure calls for the state to issue a request for proposals for a nonprofit entity to manage the scholarship program, Sorensen said. Parents and education providers would work in a closed system, the families using $8,000 per year to pay for private school, home schooling, or to buy educational services like tutors, learning therapies, curriculum, online classes, books, software, field trips and extracurricular activities, she said.
Sorensen described it as a concept of “unbundling” education. “Every kid doesn’t read at the same level,” she said. “We need to meet the student where they are at and excel where they are reading. They may have an interest in music or robotics or traveling.”
A student’s scholarship allotment would be paid by the equivalent of 75% of the student’s pupil unit funding from the state budget. In the first year, however, no schools would lose funding. In the second and subsequent years, the 75% share would be diverted from the system, the local schools retaining 25% of the previous per-student funding.
“Public schools get to keep some funding while relieving class overcrowding,” Sorensen’s group said in a fact sheet about the program.
The consortium of groups backing the proposal includes Americans for Prosperity, the Libertas Institute, the Utah Taxpayers Association, Utah Parents United, the Private Schools Association and the Sutherland Institute. Sorensen said the Utah proposal is partially modeled after scholarship-type programs in Arizona and West Virginia.
Asked about expected opposition to the proposal, Sorensen said that based on past school choice debates, “the teachers union and the traditional public schools are not loving us.” But she said both approaches should be accomplishing the same thing — using state funds to educate students.
Utah Education Association spokeswoman Hailey Higgins said the UEA has not seen the scholarship bill and therefore cannot comment. But she pointed to the teachers’ union’s past positions on school choice matters.
In a January 2022 outline of its position regarding “education vouchers, and voucher-like schemes,” the group said, “UEA believes Utah must equip every school with the resources to deliver quality education that prepares each child for a successful future. UEA opposes school vouchers, tax credits, education savings accounts and ‘scholarship’ programs that funnel money intended for public education to personal student accounts or privately run entities.”
The UEA said such programs divert funds away from public schools to private providers with “little or no taxpayer accountability.” The teachers’ group also contends that the programs “subsidize private school for affluent families along the Wasatch Front at the expense of rural students and families unable to cover the difference in private school tuition.”
Sorensen said the scholarship model would include random audits on both student accounts and education providers. Schools or other providers who receive funding above a designated threshold would be subject to annual audits.
She also challenged criticism that the programs primarily benefit financially better-off families. Parents of children anywhere in the state would be able to obtain a scholarship and use it to tailor education for the individual student, she said.
Efforts to contact the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, were not immediately successful.
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