School vouchers are back in a new bill at the Utah Legislature. Robert Gehrke explains how.

Utah voters resoundingly rejected school vouchers in 2007. Now Sen. Kirk Cullimore has a bill that would bring them back.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

School vouchers are coming back at Utah’s Capitol hill.

Fourteen years after they were rejected by Utah voters, Senate Majority Assistant Whip Kirk Cullimore is set to introduce a bill that would create a $36 million school voucher program, calling it the “Hope Scholarship Program,” according to a draft of the legislation obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune.

The program outlined under the “protected” bill would award income-based vouchers to families. A family of four making up to $53,000 would be eligible to receive up to $9,522 per child from the state to pay for private school education.

The same family of four earning $147,075 per year would be eligible for less per child — up to $3,809.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Kirk Cullimore discusses the name change for Dixie State University, during the legislative special session, on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021.

“Here we go again,” said Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association [UEA].

“We are disappointed to hear the Legislature is preparing a voucher-type bill that would create a system to divert money intended for public school children to privately-run, for-profit institutions where there is no taxpayer accountability,” she said. “Schemes like this have been tried in other states with no measurable increase in student achievement.”

In 2007, Utah Republican lawmakers passed a voucher bill that was met with immediate and furious opposition from teachers unions and education advocates who contended the scheme would pull money out of public schools, diverting it to private, for-profit schools, disadvantage lower-income students and provide little to no benefit to students.

The groups rallied to put a referendum on the ballot that year to rescind the bill and 62% of Utah voters sided with the repeal effort.

Since, legislators have taken steps to promote charter schools and have augmented the Carson Smith Scholarship Program tailored to students with special needs, but have otherwise steered clear of any large-scale voucher legislation.

Cullimore told reporters Wednesday that he believes the landscape has changed in recent years and he pointed to a Dan Jones & Associates poll released Tuesday by House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, that found 69% of those surveyed support using taxpayer dollars to pay for a student’s private school education. Wilson has refused to release details on the poll’s methodology.

“It seems that the public opinion has shifted,” Cullimore said, and that parents have begun to look for options outside the public school system.

He said the idea may not be popular among “education institutions.” Cullimore said he is working with UEA to hear their concerns and is not concerned about a repeal referendum this time around.

Senate President Stuart Adams said that when schools were disrupted during COVID-19, wealthy parents were able to send their kids to private schools, but those without the means “had to deal” with the decisions made by their public school districts.

Allison Sorensen, head of the group Education Opportunity for Every Child and a mother of five, contends Cullimore is not proposing a voucher bill since it doesn’t merely give parents money to send their kids to private school. Funds can also be used to buy textbooks and materials, hire a tutor or take a course online or outside the school so parents can customize an education to the child’s needs.

“It provides for significantly more flexibility in the spending,” she said. “Ultimately, are we funding schools, or are we funding kids? Kids are the ones we’re trying to educate, so kids are the ones who need that kind of customization.”

Several recent studies in other states show that voucher programs have had, at best, mixed results.

In Louisiana, students in the voucher program saw their math and science scores drop precipitously, according to a study published last year. Similar studies of Ohio and Indiana’s voucher program yielded similar results. A report on the Washington, D.C., voucher program found that test scores dropped for the first two years in the program but then stabilized.

But in Milwaukee’s voucher program, students who participated were more likely to graduate high school and attend college than those in the public system.

Sorensen said there are other reasons parents choose to send their kids to private schools, including class size, curriculum and to avoid bullying.

The average tuition at a private school in Utah is $11,315, according to Private School Review — less for elementary schools, more for high schools. Tuition at Rowland Hall, for example, is $26,590 and Wasatch Academy has the highest tuition in the state, at $64,800.

There would be $36 million in state funds available for Cullimore’s voucher program, and the fund could be supplemented with private donations. The Utah State Office of Education would be directed to contract with a private entity to review and make the awards. The bill sets standards for the qualifying schools and requires periodic audits. Residential teen therapy programs are not eligible for the scholarships.

Correction: Feb. 3, 9:10 a.m. • This column has been updated to correct the tuition at Rowland Hall.