The application window is open for the inaugural awards under the Utah Fits All Scholarship program, which can provide $8,000 per qualifying K-12 student to pay for private education options such as private school tuition, educational software and hardware, micro school tuition and after-school programs.

Thus far, the number of applications has eclipsed the numbers of available scholarships, with 12,918 individual student applications received in less than a week, according to Robyn Bagley, executive director of the Utah Education Fits All advocacy organization. Applications will be accepted through April 15.

“With the application portal open 42 more days, there is no doubt Utah parents plan to deliver a strong message to their legislators that they expect their children will not be continually denied this opportunity,” Bagley said in an interview.

Utah lawmakers appropriated $40 million to the school voucher program during the just-concluded 2024 General Session, bringing total funding for program over the past two years to $82.5 million. Bagley said the program will serve 10,000 students its inaugural year, starting this fall.

Under state law that created the program, there are three levels of preference for scholarship awards:

⋅Students whose family income is at the 200% federal poverty level or less.

⋅Students whose family’s income is between 200-555% of the federal poverty level.

⋅All Utah K-12 students regardless of family income.

The program plans to notify scholarship recipients shortly after the application window closes.

The lawmakers that sponsored legislation in 2023 to create the program sought a $150 million appropriation, a reflection of intense demand for the scholarships.

HB215, sponsored by Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, was a sea change in Utah education policy in that it expands the use of public money for private education choices far beyond existing programs for families of children with disabilities.

Asked if parents were disappointed that Utah lawmakers did not appropriate the full amount requested, Bagley said, “The question is less about potential applicants being discouraged, and more about how motivated parents are regardless of limited funding. They know the reality but understand that applying and continuing to demonstrate overwhelming demand is the avenue for obtaining increased funding in subsequent years.”

When the legislative session began, there was funding on hand for 5,000 scholarships, she said.

“Our parents let their voices be heard, sending 10,400 emails to the Executive Appropriations Committee respectfully asking for a sizable increase in funding. We were able to double the funding and the program will now serve 10,000 children in year one, a huge victory for Utah families,” Bagley said.

Senate sponsor of the legislation, Majority Assistant Whip Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, told the Education Appropriations Subcommittee that the program would need $280 million to meet the demand expressed by families who have indicated they are interested in applying for the vouchers, which totals some 35,000 children.

Bagley said there are multiple reasons parents want choice in education for their children. “It’s different for every family, but certainly we’re seeing that families are more ready than ever to take control over their children’s education. This is being driven by a multitude of factors. They are certainly motivated by learning environments reflective of their families values. There is a new generation of parents that doesn’t feel constrained by traditional approaches to educating their children. They live vastly different lifestyles than in the past, one of customization, where a multitude of services and choices are at their fingertips,” she said.

COVID-19 played a role, too, Bagley said.

“The experience impacted parents’ perceptions of learning and gave them a window into the delivery of education that they hadn’t been exposed to before. In many instances it left them disappointed and concerned about their child’s learning environment. Families also discovered that not only were they comfortable working from home, but also having their children learning from home,” she said.

Some lawmakers balked at the proposed $150 million appropriation when the program had not yet begun and said there are lingering questions about accountability.

“There really aren’t the kind of guardrails in terms of assessments and accountability that we require from public education. So I’m just concerned that we’re going ahead before we see how the program works,” said Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, during a discussion among members of the Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

Pierucci said the 2023 legislation that established the program has an auditing requirement. “There are guardrail requirements in place. There’s a portfolio requirement in place for these students if they opt to do a portfolio instead of a state test. ... As I said last year, and I’ll say it again, I think we over regulate public education in a lot of ways in Utah and I’d be more in favor of rolling back so those onerous requirements that our teachers face.”

Cullimore noted that in Utah, nearly 97% of school age students participate in public education.

Correction: Robyn Bagley is executive director of Utah Education Fits All. An earlier version of this story misstated her title.