Utah’s new private school voucher program — the Utah Fits All Scholarship — hasn’t yet created an application process, and the state doesn’t offer a way to preregister for the 5,000 slots that will be available for the 2024-25 school year.
But a website being promoted on Facebook and placing high in searches on Google claims families can “preapply” for the scholarship — which is spreading confusion and misinformation, state officials said.
The web address is utaheducationfitsall.org, which adds the word “education” to the name of the scholarship program.
“It is misleading,” said Ryan Bartlett, spokesperson for the Utah State Board of Education. “The Utah Education Fits All website is not affiliated with us.”
Bartlett said the state board’s office has received multiple calls and emails from individuals who have filled out the form and are inquiring about their preapplication status.
“People cannot preapply,” he emphasized.
Utah Education Fits All describes itself as a “nonprofit advocacy watchdog for the Utah Fits All Scholarship Program.” The officers listed on the site have conservative ties.
Robyn Bagley, a member of former Republican Gov. Gary Herbert’s Education Excellence Commission, is listed as board chair. Bagley has long advocated for parents’ rights and expanded educational choices for families. She did not immediately respond to requests for an interview but in an email late Thursday said the organization is a registered nonprofit.
“We hear from parents daily that they are looking for education options that fit their children’s unique learning needs,” Bagley wrote. “Currently, there is no other outlet a parent can access to find accurate information or to have their questions answered about Utah’s new education savings account law or to find out when the application will become available. We are that resource.”
Utah Education Fits All has added language to the site clarifying that it is not affiliated with the state, is not the official application site and is not responsible for managing scholarship funds, Bagley said.
The site still claims families can “preapply” and the new clarifying language can only be found at the bottom of the “preapply” form.
The organization also sent out a newsletter Friday morning that said “pre-applications are soaring” and it’s had “over a thousand Utah parents preapply for this scholarship already.” Links and buttons reading “I want to preapply” and “Don’t wait another moment, pre-apply!” are scattered throughout the email.
Bagley’s full statement is below. Michael Melendez, executive vice president of the Libertas Institute, a conservative think tank, is named on the organization’s site as vice chair. However, a Libertas spokesperson said Melendez is no longer serving on the board.
Also from the Libertas Institute, Education Policy Analyst Jon England has hosted informational sessions via Facebook about the scholarship. However, Libertas’ spokesperson said the institute is not operating Utah Education Fits All.
Galey Colosimo, the principal of Juan Diego Catholic High School, a private school affiliated with the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, is listed as the organization’s treasurer. He did not respond to an email seeking comment.
How will Utahns apply for the scholarships?
HB215, passed during the most recent legislative session, established the Utah Fits All Scholarship. The bill set aside $42.5 million to cover up to $8,000 in private school tuition costs for students —enough for 5,000 individuals to participate.
The first step the state is taking is finding a program manager to oversee and distribute the funds, Bartlett said. The state will solicit proposals in September from interested parties. The selection process won’t be complete until the end of this year, he said.
The application portal will open in March 2024 and families will have to apply within a certain time period; the exact dates have yet to be determined.
All applications will be reviewed after the portal closes, he said, and selections won’t be based on a first-come-first-serve basis.
The top result for a Google search of the term “Utah Fits All Scholarship” by The Tribune showed the text: “Be Ready — Pre-Apply Now — Utah Fits All Scholarship” with the URL utaheducationfitsall.org. On its homepage, several call-to-action buttons tell users to “Pre Apply Here.”
The homepage of the website states that those who “pre-apply” there will “be the first” applicants or “the first to receive access” — but that isn’t true, Bartlett said.
Any family in Utah who will not be enrolling full-time in public school can apply for the program, regardless of income. However, low-income families will receive first priority if the number of applicants exceeds 5,000, the law says.
There are no advantages to completing the form offered on the Utah Education Fits All website, Bartlett said.
“Nobody’s getting ‘preapproved,’” he said. “They’re going to be going through the same process that everybody else is.”
Why is Utah Education Fits All collecting names?
Because the state is not yet accepting applications for a program manager, it is not known if Utah Education Fits All intends to apply, Bartlett said. Nonprofit groups are eligible to apply.
Registered entities are searchable through the Department of Commerce’s website, but “Utah Education Fits All” and the names of its board members did not return any results. Nonprofits, whether or not their primary activity is fundraising, need to register with the Utah Department of Commerce, said Melanie Hall, spokesperson for the department.
Until the group’s nonprofit status could be confirmed, Hall cautioned against providing any personal information, especially information about children.
“If they are soliciting people’s information saying that it’s an application for vouchers, then that’s a misrepresentation and we would recommend any individuals that may have done that to file a complaint with the Division of Consumer Protection,” Hall said.
Bagley on Thursday provided the organization’s EIN number, which is registered under the name “Rise Up for Student Scholarships.” The officer listed is Stephen Trost of Taylorsville, according to IRS records.
Bagley said Utah Education Fits All has taken over that nonprofit, which was previously dormant.
“Although we are legally up and running and our corporate registration has been effected with the state, the name change is not reflected with the IRS yet,” Bagley said.
Utah Education Fits All explains in its site’s FAQ section why it has created its own “pre-application form,” which it also refers to as its own “waitlist.” There is no official state waitlist for the scholarship program.
“We will utilize the size of the Utah Fits All waitlist of families to demonstrate demand for the scholarship to our elected representatives,” the site reads. “We will deliver those numbers to our legislature by January of 2024, at the beginning of the next legislative session. Our goal is to obtain an increase in the total appropriation amount in order to meet the demand before the application portal opens.”
The form asks for individuals’ first and last name, ZIP code, email, number of children and their grade levels. The site promises not to share any identifiable information from the list.
Bartlett said the Utah Legislature can increase the funding for the scholarship in the 2024 session, but he believes that is not likely to happen before the 2024-25 school year.
“There’s only a certain amount of funding that’s available for this,” Bartlett said. “And there’s some anticipation that there are going to be more applications than there is funding available.”
Opponents of the program argue that the draining of potentially 5,000 students from public schools would financially hurt Utah’s public schools, which are already among the least funded per-pupil in the country.
Utah awards public schools an amount of money called a weighted pupil unit, or WPU for each K-12 student who enrolls. The WPU is currently set by the state at about $4,000. If fewer kids attend — leaving public schools for private schools — then public schools get less funding.
But for conservatives backing the program, it’s about giving parents and their children more educational choices. The scholarship, said bill sponsor Rep. Candice Pierucci, is meant to help lower income families afford private schools.
STATEMENT FROM UTAH EDUCATION FITS ALL
Our mission is to ensure Utah families have the freedom and access to choose the best fit for their child’s education.
We hear from parents daily that they are looking for education options that fit their children’s unique learning needs. We exist to both inform them and to advocate with them. Currently, there is no other outlet a parent can access to find accurate information or to have their questions answered about Utah’s new education savings account law or to find out when the application will become available. We are that resource and we will continue to be a resource for families as the implementation of this important school choice law moves forward.
We have never claimed to be the program manager and have always had clarifying language on our website not only explaining the facts about how the scholarship works but also when the actual application portal is statutorily required to open. We have now added even more information in additional places to provide further clarification. We want families to be ready and equipped with all the information they need to apply and to let their legislators know they are grateful for the Utah Fits All Scholarship and would like the opportunity to receive one.