New Utah Law Funds Scholarship Program for K-12 Private Education

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed legislation on Saturday that will provide scholarships to K-12 students who choose nonpublic education.

H.B. 215 funds yearly grants of up to $8,000 per student (with some adjustments for inflation) that families may use to pay for tuition, textbooks, tutoring services, curricula, software, and other educational needs. Both houses of Utah’s Legislature approved the bill by wide margins and, with Thursday’s Senate vote, sent the bill to Cox’s desk during National School Choice Week.

Utah is the latest state to pass legislation that funds school choice. Earlier in January, Iowa codified a similar grant program. School choice advocates are bullish that 2023 will bring more legislative victories for families who want alternatives to traditional public schools. 

“Utah is the second state this year to go all-in on empowering families with education freedom and it’s only January,” said Corey DeAngelis, a senior fellow at the American Federation for Children, in a statement given to Reason. “Red states are now engaging in friendly competition to fund students, not systems. Iowa already passed universal school choice this year. Keep your eyes on states such as Arkansas, Florida, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas.”

H.B. 215 also enacted salary increases for teachers. Nevertheless, the Utah Education Association (UEA), the state’s largest teachers union, has pledged to “overturn” the law. Teachers at two Salt Lake City high schools staged walkouts

However, the bill doesn’t detract from public education funds and is no “indictment on public education,” noted Senate sponsor Kirk Cullimore (R–Sandy). Indeed, nearly 97 percent of Utah students currently “participat[e] in public education in some fashion,” according to Cullimore.

The bill simply empowers parents to seek other, more individualized, and likely better educational programming for their students. In short, it weakens public education’s monopolistic tendencies and introduces more robust competition in the market. “Parents have woken up and are now freeing their children from a one-size-fits-all system that will, by definition, never meet their individual needs,” DeAngelis said.

“This bill strikes a good balance. More than 90% of parents support Utah schools and so do we,” Cox said upon signing the bill. “We also appreciate that HB 215 gives Utah parents additional options to meet the needs of their families,” he added.

Many public schools and their teachers union pals will fail to compete with private institutions, and COVID-era school closures and learning loss have likely permanently damaged the former’s reputation. Utah’s scholarship program and similar ones will drive the demand for (and, consequently, the supply of) private alternatives. With such investments, the ratio of public to private institutions will rightfully be determined by family choice, not bureaucratic fiat.

Moreover, competition may make real the aspiration that public schools provide a higher quality of education. And as students depart failing public school systems, administrators will, perforce, hire better teachers, design better curricula, and better address the concerns of parents. The alternative—perhaps more likely in the long term—is to face extinction.

“I’d like to thank Randi Weingarten and her union allies for inadvertently doing more to advance school choice than anyone could have ever imagined,” DeAngelis said. “They overplayed their hand and sparked a parent revolution. The kids now have a union of their own: parents.”

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