EDUCATION & SCHOOLS

Utah families receive millions of tax dollars for ‘Utah Fits All’ scholarship. Education opportunity or taxpayer subsidy?

May 3, 2024, 11:43 AM | Updated: 11:45 am

LAYTON – Thousands of Utah families are about to learn whether they’ll receive the “Utah Fits All” scholarship. Lawmakers allocated $80 million to help parents offset the costs of homeschool and private school.

Emily Jean Nef hopes her five children make the list.

“I have lots of kids and they have different needs,” she said.

Nef spends significant time and money to homeschool her children. She wants to oversee their education but feels limited by finances. So, $8,000 for each of her kids would be a $40,000 windfall.

“It would mean not having to make decisions based on finances,” Nef said.

The scholarships, which function like vouchers, will go to 10,000 Utah students, based first on financial need. ACE Scholarships administers the program and says more than 27,000 students applied.

“Families and students are really hungry for choices in education,” said Jackie Guglielmo, vice president for ESA programs. “They’ve come to realize there is no one size fits all to education.”

But critics say that choice could come at a cost not just measured in dollars and cents.

“If I came to you and said, ‘Here’s $8,000 you can use any way you want,’ will you turn it down?” said Richard Kendell, former superintendent for the Davis School District and Utah’s state commissioner for higher education.

Kendell has a lot of concerns, for one, a lack of accountability for student progress, which could lead to thousands of students who are unprepared for the future.

Public schools must demonstrate student progress. Homeschoolers can opt out of testing and choose a curriculum with no set standards. The law states they are not subject to assessment and can provide an optional “portfolio” at the end of the year to demonstrate what they learned.

Emily Jean Nef applied for the Utah Fits All scholarship for each of her five children. (Josh Szymanik, KSL TV)

“It can be anything I choose,” Nef said. And she feels her children are better off because of it.

Another provision of the law might surprise many taxpayers. Almost any activity qualifies as “educational.” Businesses can apply to be on the official vendor list. So, everything from karate to ski programs to swimming lessons and other activities could be covered by the scholarships, coming at taxpayer expense.

Nef said if they get the scholarship, she’ll use it to hire a tutor and enroll two of her boys in martial arts.

That doesn’t sit right with public school advocates.

“We didn’t get into public education in the latter part of the 19th century because we needed karate kids,” said Kendell.

“I don’t know if that’s something taxpayers should be asked to do,” said Amber Bonner, whose seven kids have attended public schools in the Alpine School District.

Besides a lack of standards, this PTA leader worries about the impact of the scholarships on public education. Alpine is looking to close schools in some areas, partly due to changing demographics. So, Bonner doesn’t want to incentivize more families to leave.

Amber Bonner is a PTA leader in the Alpine School District. She shares her concerns about the impact of the Utah Fits All scholarships on public education with KSL TV’s Deanie Wimmer. (Josh Szymanik, KSL TV)

“A couple hundred students can make the difference of a school keeping its doors open or not,” she said. “Every school has to have a principal, and a librarian and a custodian. Whether you have 10 students or 100, there are certain positions you’ve got to still have.”

Nef counters, “This is completely separate taxpayer money.”

But the bill shows the funding for the Utah Fits All scholarship comes from the State Income Tax Fund, which, by state constitution, is earmarked for only three things: public education, higher education and people with disabilities. Education leaders say the scholarships compete for limited dollars.

In the Alpine School District alone, their share of the voucher money would be the equivalent of more than 40 school counselors, 40 behavior specialists and 50 part-time class aides.

Parents have the right to choose the best education for their children – on that they all agree. It’s at what cost and who should pay for that choice where they differ.

“I feel like the public school system does a poor job at preparing kids to be adults,” Nef said.

“I also hope that we are supporting our public schools as much as we are supporting kids who need to leave our public schools,” Bonner said.

The scholarships will be announced on Friday. Enrollment preference goes to families 200% or less below the federal poverty level. The remaining families go on a waiting list.

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Utah families receive millions of tax dollars for ‘Utah Fits All’ scholarship. Education opportunity or taxpayer subsidy?