There’s not enough interest in Utah’s 2 existing vouchers to use up the money for them

The Carson Smith and Special Needs Opportunity scholarship funds are never depleted because not enough students apply.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

As Utah lawmakers consider creating a new voucher program, data shows the two existing programs in the state aren’t being used to their full extent — leaving millions of dollars sitting earmarked but untouched.

The current vouchers in Utah are reserved for students with disabilities. This year, combined, they’re serving a little over 1,000 students, said Angie Stallings, the state’s deputy superintendent of policy, during a Monday meeting of the Utah State Board of Education.

The operations of the programs — and the declining enrollment in one — are drawing scrutiny now as the state looks to set up another voucher that would be open to far more students, up to 5,000 total, both with and without special needs.

HB215, which is being fast-tracked through the Legislature this session, would launch a $42 million fund from taxpayer money to set up a “scholarship” account for students; those who receive money, allocated in $8,000 awards, would be able to spend it to go to a private school or be home-schooled.

Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, the bill’s sponsor, believes the “Utah Fits All Scholarship” will give students more choice over their education and has drafted the measure to prioritize those from low-income families who might not otherwise be able to afford something outside the public school system.

The proposal has sailed through committees and won favor from the full House. It now faces final approval in the Senate, expected later this week.

But it’s drawn united opposition from education stakeholders across the state, who say the added measure to give teachers $6,000 pay raises made contingent on approving the vouchers is insulting. They worry it will undermine public education. And they see little demand for it, pointing to the failure to fully use the existing programs.

Senate Minority Whip Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, who has headed much of the dissent against the proposal at the Capitol, previously held a seat on the Utah State Board of Education, which collects data on the two voucher programs here.

“There’s plenty of money for them,” she said, “and it’s never used up.”

The Salt Lake Tribune requested data from the state on the existing vouchers, which shows that money is leftover each year because not enough students are applying. Here’s a breakdown of how much is allocated for each program, how many students are using those scholarships and how demand is declining for one.

Carson Smith Scholarship: A $2.1 million surplus in 2 years

This taxpayer-funded program was the first voucher to be launched by the state, starting in 2005.

It was named after a boy who was then 6 years old and attending the Carmen B. Pingree School for Children with Autism. His mother, Cheryl Smith, said was it hard for her family to afford the $11,000 tuition at the time.

Her aim with the scholarship, though, which many don’t know, was to keep her son there until he caught up with his peers and could attend a public school.

“This allows us to keep Carson at this school and get the services he needs so we can get him ready to go to public school,” she said in 2005.

(Ryan Galbraith | The Salt Lake Tribune) Frank and Cheryl Smith with their son, Carson, during a press conference in 2004 announcing the proposed Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship. The bill created programs to award scholarships to students with disabilities who attend private school.

Now, it’s typically used for students who don’t want to attend public schools.

Qualified students can range from pre-schoolers to 12th graders. They have to traditionally qualify for special needs services in schools. When they enroll in an eligible private school — there are requirements for schools to receive the money — they can apply for funding from the vouchers.

In doing so, the parent has to sign a waiver acknowledging that private schools are not required to provide special education services, according to the statute.

The amount of scholarship funding they receive is based “on the level of specialized instruction and related services the student would receive if enrolled in a public school,” according to the Utah State Board of Education’s breakdown of the program. It’s a formula that relies on the weighted pupil unit, or WPU, that’s set by the state.

A student without disabilities would be allocated one WPU, which is currently set at about $4,000. Having a disability entitles a student to more funding because they require specialized services.

Students who receive three or more hours of services in a school day are calculated at 2.5 the WPU. Students who receive fewer than three hours at 1.5 times the WPU.

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Those amounts are then translated into the voucher amounts; so a student who needs more services would get about $10,000 in a scholarship through the program to attend a private school. Students who need slightly fewer special services would receive roughly $6,000. But the rate matches what’s given to public schools by the state.

Roughly one in eight Utah students, or 11%, is eligible for the Carson Smith Scholarship, according to the U.S. Department of Education. But only about 1% of those students elect to use the program; the remainder stay in public schools or do home-schooling.

This school year, there are 931 students in the program. That’s down from last year when it was 1,139, according to figures provided by the state.

That number has dropped every year since 2019, according to EdChoice, a nonprofit that supports vouchers and tracks their use nationwide.

(Scott Sommerdorf | Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Michael Noel, R-Kanab, applies a sticker promoting the Carson Smith Scholarship while on the floor of the House in 2010.

Additionally, the number of eligible schools has also dropped, though not nearly by so much. There was one fewer private school participating in the program this year compared to last, for a total now of 104.

Meanwhile, there are 235 private schools in the state, according to data from the Utah State Board of Education. To be eligible, a school has to audited by the state, agree not to discriminate against students and disclose to parents what disability services they will actually provide, among other provisions. Not all elect to do so. And some have been penalized for accepting the funds without meeting the requirements.

So far, in the nearly two decades of the program, the demand has never matched the funding set aside for the program.

The funding grows each year with the adjustments for inflation. For the current school year, the state has allocated roughly $7.7 million. It will use roughly $6.4 million with the enrolled students. That leaves an extra $1.3 million in the bank.

That surplus doesn’t get returned to taxpayers, according to how the program is set up in law; instead it sits in the fund for possible future use.

Last year, the program was allocated $7.3 million. It used $6.5 million, with slightly more students enrolled. That’s an $800,000 surplus.

Between just the last two years, the state is looking at $2.1 million in unused funds for the program.

On average, students are being awarded $5,676 each in a scholarship. That points to there being more students in the program who receive less than three hours of special needs services than those who receive more than three hours.

Next year, the program will be allocated $8.2 million from the state.

Students who receive the Carson Smith scholarship are required to take an assessment each year to see how they’re performing. The state doesn’t retain that data, though; it is shared only with parents.

So there’s no way to track if students on the voucher have improved since moving to a private school.

Special Needs Opportunity Scholarship: Donors receive tax credits, but at least $1.2 million has gone untouched

The bill to create this voucher was proposed in the 2020 legislative session and launched in 2021.

Unlike the Carson Smith Program, the Special Needs Opportunity Program is run less like a scholarship and more like a tax rebate. Students still receive a scholarship to cover their schooling. But donors can provide money to the fund — which also receives an allocation each year from the state, paid for by taxpayers — and get a credit for 100% of that amount on their taxes at the end of the year.

The Special Needs Opportunity Program is open to students from kindergarten to 12th grade who also qualify for special needs services in public schools, but whose parents want to enroll them in a private school or do home-schooling. If they elect for a private school, parents must waive rights to special education services.

The money can be used more expansively, according to the statute, including to cover tuition, educational therapy, textbooks or for an online program. A student cannot receive money from both vouchers, though.

How much is allocated per kid with the Special Needs Scholarship is more complicated than the Carson Smith formula and factors in family income.

Under this program, a student receives an award amount that is 2.5 times the WPU if they have special needs and are below 185% of the federal poverty level. A student gets 2 times the WPU if they have special needs and are between 185% and 555% of the federal poverty level, which is essentially middle class. And a student gets 1.5 times the WPU if they have special needs are are above 555% of the federal poverty, meaning their family is wealthy.

Essentially, the maximum amount a student could get is roughly $10,000.

This doesn’t exactly match what a student would be allocated by the state in attending a public school, which has add-ons to the WPU only for students with disabilities (based on how severe those are), not for students from low-income backgrounds. So a family could see more money taking their student to a private school than that child would be provided in the public system.

As the program has only been in effect for one full school year and part of this current school year, the data is somewhat limited.

There are currently 163 students participating, according to the data provided by the Utah State Board of Education. Last year, there were 93, so it’s grown a bit.

One fewer private school is participating this year than last year, with 32 total eligible — or about a third of what participates in the Carson Smith Scholarship.

The program is allocated roughly $30,000 by the state and it has received $3.7 million in donations.

For the two years in operation, that puts the budget at $3.76 million.

During those same two years, it has provided 256 scholarships (some to the same student but for separate years). Even if all of those scholarships were given out at the maximum amount of $10,000 — which is unlikely — that would still leave a surplus of $1.2 million.

Regardless of whether the money is used, the donors still receive their tax credit.

That means money is sitting untouched in the bank for a program that is rewarding donors for contributing but not actually serving children to its fullest potential. And there’s no per donor credit cap, according to the statute.

There are also no assessment mandates for students receiving this scholarship.

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