Not a single family has yet applied to the Utah Fits All Scholarship program but the lawmakers who sponsored the 2023 legislation that created it just requested $150 million more for the program.

The program allows eligible parents to use state funds for private school, home-schooling or other educational options, with scholarships valued at approximately $8,000 per child. The bill also gave $6,000 pay raises to licensed educators.

HB215 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. Last year, the sponsors said the program would serve about 5,000 children initially.

According to the program’s website, applications for the 2024-25 school year open Feb. 28.

In a presentation to the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee earlier this week, Senate Majority Assistant Whip Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, said the scholarship program has accepted “pre-applications” in anticipation of its launch next fall.

“There’s been 17,000 families who have indicated they intend to apply for this, which is over 35,000 kids and this has come from about 90% of all the ZIP codes across the state,” suggesting the demand is statewide, he said.

To meet the projected demand “that we know of, would be a total of $280 million. We’re not asking for that. We are asking for $150 million, with the understanding that obviously, a lot of this will get worked out through the budget process, but that $150 million would not even meet the current demand,” Cullimore said.

Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, who sponsored HB215 during the 2023 session that created the Utah Fits All Scholarship program, said lawmakers appropriated $42.5 million to the program one year ago.

After the passage of HB215, she was contacted by “tons of parents” who thought the program would start in fall 2023.

“But I know that they appreciate that we’ve waited a year to really work out any of the kinks. I think what is really important for this program is having the momentum and being able to sustain it. It certainly would be unfortunate if you have 33,000 kids apply and word gets out that it’s actually really difficult to get this and then we see a drop off of people who are applying,” she said.

Senate gives final passage to school choice scholarships, teacher raises

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, questioned whether the appropriation would cut into education funding.

Cullimore responded: “Well, as we’ve expanded the uses of the income tax revenue stream and the General Fund, which comes from sales tax, it could potentially come from either one of those. … It’s important to note that the public education system is still going to get the funding that they would anticipate. I know, there’s quite large requests from the UEA and others beyond what the statutory requirements are, and I think those are going to be considered by the Legislature as they are every year and so it’s not going to eat into that.”

Lexi Cunningham, representing the Utah School Boards Association and the Utah School Superintendents Association, tweeted in response to the appropriations request: “Request made to increase the Utah Fits All Scholarship by $150,000,000. The program has not even started and already asking for more money!”

Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, said several people have raised concerns that the $8,000 scholarship is roughly double the current value of the weighted pupil unit, the basic building block of education funding in Utah. 

Moreover, “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,” Moss said.

Pierucci said recipients who do not take state standardized tests can create a portfolio of their work that will be evaluated.

“So we actually do have guardrails in place. We do have accountability measures in place. And as I said last year, and I’ll say it again, I think we overregulate public education ... in Utah,” she said.

As for setting the scholarship at $8,000 per student, Pierucci said “school choice is largely available if your family is wealthy enough, right?”

At $8,000, “you’re really able to create an option for families that traditionally are not able to do this,” she said.