On Monday, Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr., signed into law the
"Parent Choice in Education" Act (H.B. 148). The legislation,
which was sponsored by Rep. Stephen H. Urquhart (R-St. George) and
Sen. Curtis S. Bramble (R-Provo), creates a sweeping school voucher
program that puts Utah on track to offer all children a scholarship
to attend the school of their parents' choice. By enacting the
"Parent Choice in Education" Act, Utah has created the most
comprehensive school choice program in the nation. State and local
policymakers across the nation should consider similar programs to
expand educational options and introduce competition into
Setting a New Standard
Today, 12 states and the District of Columbia provide public
funding for school choice. In all, approximately 150,000 children
across the United States will attend a K-12 private school using a
publicly funded tuition scholarship in 2007.
Utah's new program, scheduled to begin in the fall of 2007, will
be by far the most expansive school choice program in the nation.
The program will offer scholarships to each of the estimated
500,000 children currently enrolled Utah's public schools and to
low-income children currently attending private schools. The
program will also offer scholarships to all students entering
kindergarten in the fall of 2007. This means that all children in
the state will have the opportunity to participate by 2020, thereby
creating the nation's first universal, means-tested school voucher
How the Program Will Work
The "Parent Choice in Education" Act will provide scholarships
to assist families that choose to send their children to private
schools. The scholarship amount varies between $500 and $3,000
depending on family income. (See Table 1.)
All current public school students will be able to use a voucher
to transfer to a private school. Among current private school
students, only those who meet the income guidelines for the federal
free and reduced school lunch program will be eligible to receive
scholarships. Moving forward, all students entering kindergarten in
2007 and thereafter will be eligible to use scholarships to attend
a school of choice. This means that by 2020 all children in the
state will be eligible to participate.
In order to admit students participating in the voucher program,
private schools must meet a number of guidelines. For example, they
must administer a nationally norm-referenced test, report
individual test results to parents, and report school-wide
performance results to the state government. Further, participating
private schools must disclose information relating to teachers'
credentials and the school's accreditation status. Schools also
must have an independent auditor assess relevant information about
the school's budget and accounting procedures and include this
information in the school's application to the state.
Projecting the Fiscal Impact
Utah's Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst projects that
the voucher program will cost $9.3 million in fiscal year 2008 and
$12.4 million in fiscal year 2009. Much of this cost is due to a
particular aspect of the program's design. The program is
structured to spare public schools a portion of the potential
revenue losses that result from students transferring into private
schools. When a student leaves a public school, the legislation
requires the state to continue to supply that public school's
district the portion of the per-pupil funding that is over and
above the state-wide average voucher amount, and to continue doing
so for a period of five years following the transfer or until the
student was scheduled to graduate. Unfortunately, this will
minimize the voucher program's competitive effect that might
otherwise spur innovation in the public school system.
Nevertheless, the voucher program has the potential to save Utah
taxpayers considerable resources over time. Five years after a
student transfer, the state is no longer required to provide
per-pupil funding to a public school district on behalf of that
student. Moreover, public schools will not receive state funding
for any new students entering kindergarten who elect never to
attend public schools.
A comprehensive analysis of the program's impact conducted by
Dr. Susan Aud of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation finds
that the program will generate significant fiscal savings.
According to Aud, Utah public schools currently receive $6,325 in
revenue per student. Aud estimates that the average voucher awarded
will be $2,731. As students begin using vouchers to transfer from
public to private schools, state resources that would have been
dedicated to educating the child in public school will be freed up.
Initially, this money will be reinvested in public education. But
the state will begin reaping savings after the five-year holding
period. Over time, these resource savings achieved through student
transfers should be considerable.
Many school choice programs that have been implemented across
the country have been subjected to legal challenges. Opponents of
school choice argue that programs that allow parents to educate
their children in private or religious schools violate either the
federal or the state constitution. At the federal level, the legal
question was settled in 2002 when the Supreme Court upheld the
constitutionality of Cleveland's school voucher program.
Some state constitutions do present different legal hurdles.
Nevertheless, school choice programs have been successfully
defended in states such as Arizona, Illinois, Ohio, and
Wisconsin. However, state courts have struck down
voucher programs in Colorado and Florida. But school choice
supporters believe that the new Utah program is on firm legal
footing. "Utah precedent is very favorable to school choice, and we
are confident this program will withstand legal challenge,"
explained Dick Komer, a senior attorney with the Institute for
Justice. "School choice is perfectly consistent with the Utah and
Expanding Educational Options and
With the "Parent Choice in Education" Act, Utah lawmakers are
implementing a revolutionary vision of education reform. By 2020,
all Utah families will be able to use a portion of their children's
share of public education funding to enroll them in a school of
their choice. The vision for this universal voucher program was
outlined by Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman in his seminal
essay "The Role of Government in Education" in 1955. Under this
system of universal school vouchers, families have the opportunity
to shop for the best school for their children, and schools have to
compete to offer superior services and, thus, attract students.
Research on the existing, more limited school choice programs
has shown a number of positive benefits. First, school choice has
been proven to increase parents' satisfaction with their children's
schools. Second, students in private school choice
programs show increased academic achievement. Eight
"random-assignment" studies of five different school voucher
and tuition scholarship programs have been undertaken, and all but
one have shown that students using scholarships performed
significantly better academically. All of the studies found a
positive effect. Third, research has shown that
competition has a positive effect on public schools, as they
respond to competition by improving performance and becoming more
efficient. Researchers will watch Utah's new program
closely to determine how a universal school voucher program affects
By enacting this broad school choice program, Utah has taken the
lead in providing real options to parents and empowering them to
choose the best schools for their children. As Utah families begin
to participate in the voucher program and enjoy the benefits of
widespread school choice, state and local policymakers across the
nation should study the Utah program and implement similarly
widespread school voucher initiatives.
Lips is Education Analyst, and Evan Feinberg is a Research
Assistant in Domestic Policy Studies, at The Heritage
Nicole Stricker, "Guv quietly signs school voucher bill," The
Salt Lake Tribune, February 13, 2007.
Jennifer Toomer-Cook, "House OKs school vouchers," Deseret
Morning News, February 3, 2007.
Nicole Stricker, "Fight over voucher program may not be finished,"
The Salt Lake Tribune, February 11, 2007.
Multiple studies have reached this conclusion. For example, see Jay
Greene and Greg Forster, "Vouchers for Special Education Students:
An Evaluation of Florida's McKay Scholarship Program,"
Manhattan Institute Civic Report No. 38, June 2003, at www.manhattan-institute.org/html/cr_38.htm.
Jay P. Greene, Education Myths (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and
Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005), pp. 150-154.
Caroline Minter Hoxby, "Rising Tide."