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Utah isn’t alone in embracing school vouchers. Has it worked out in other states?

A group of students and adults wearing “Utah Fits All” shirts and holding signs in support of HB215 pose for a picture with Rep. Candice Pierucci and Sen. Kirk Cullimore inside the Utah State Capitol, Jan. 24, 2023.
Courtesy Utah Senate
A group of students and adults wearing “Utah Fits All” shirts and holding signs in support of HB215 pose for a picture with Rep. Candice Pierucci and Sen. Kirk Cullimore inside the Utah State Capitol, Jan. 24, 2023.

When Republican Rep. Candice Pierucci pitched her school choice bill to the Utah Senate Education Committee in January, she said while she thrived in public schools, that is not the case for every student. To her, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted that education is not a “one-size fits all” situation.

“I have had family members who may have excelled in a different setting with a more customized learning approach,” Pierucci said. “I believe that supporting education means supporting the best approach for educating each individual child in our state.”

It took less than two weeks for Pierucci’s “Funding for Teacher Salaries and Optional Education Opportunities” bill, HB215, to sail through the Legislature and be signed by Gov. Spencer Cox on Jan. 28.

The law gives Utah teachers a pay raise and also creates the “Utah Fits All Scholarship Program.” Starting March 1, 2024, parents will be able to apply for $8,000 of public funding to apply to private schooling or homeschooling expenses, with priority given to lower income families.

The program has been controversial. Those on both sides of the issue can barely agree on what to call it. Some refer to it as a voucher and others say it is an education savings account, or an education spending account.

Pierucci is adamant that she believes the scholarship is not a voucher program.

“And let me clarify why. It would be like going to the restaurant and ordering a steak and getting a cheeseburger. The difference is it's an educational spending account. You can do so much more than use this money for private school,” Pierucci told the Senate Education Committee.

Pierucci defined vouchers as money that can only be used for private school education, whereas Utah’s scholarship program can also go toward homeschooling and microschooling costs.

In an interview with KUER, Pierucci said the new school choice program is closer to a health savings account than it is to a voucher program.

Douglas Harris, economics professor at Tulane University and director of the National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice, doesn’t agree with that characterization.

“Yeah, it’s a voucher. This one’s pretty simple,” Harris said. “That’s just playing games with words.”

He said education savings accounts and vouchers both shift public money to education organizations based on decisions made by individual families. In Harris’s assessment, there is no savings element to Utah’s program.

The differing vocabulary could come down to political reasons. Harris said the term “voucher” does not poll well, whereas calling it a savings account is more appealing.

Regardless of what they’re called, Harris said data on the effectiveness of these types of programs is murky, since private schools do not have the same reporting requirements as public schools.

“They don't have to tell us what's going on,” Harris said.

From the data that is available and has been studied, Harris said students using voucher programs nationwide are not doing better academically than their peers in public school.

“The results have been really bad. Strong negative effects across many different states now on student achievement scores,” Harris said.

Indiana has had a statewide voucher program in place for over a decade. The Indiana Choice Scholarship Program is one of the largest voucher programs in the country, according to University of Kentucky professor Joseph Waddington.

Waddington looked at 3,363 low-income students who used a voucher to transfer from a public school to a private school and compared them to low-income public school students over the course of six years. He found that the voucher students fell behind their public school peers.

“In math, that drop persisted over time. They did rebound in English language arts so after three or four years, there was no difference between the voucher kids and their public peers, but they were still behind in math,” Waddington said.

Indiana’s program started off small with fewer than 4,000 students during its first year, with most of those students coming from low-income families. Utah’s plan is of similar scale, with enough funds to cover a projected 5,000 students.

However, Indiana’s program quickly grew, and as it grew, Waddington said the eligibility requirements expanded with more kids from middle-income families participating.

Another way the program has changed is now, Waddington said a majority of the program participants have never spent any time in public school.

“It’s really served as more of a way to subsidize their private school education all along,” Waddington said.

For Pierucci, the sponsor of Utah’s law, it’s not accurate to compare data from states like Indiana to Utah because it’s not an apples to apples comparison. Instead, Pierucci said Utah’s program is patterned off of Florida (a program lawmakers are considering a big expansion for), West Virginia and Arizona (where the new governor wants to roll back expansion).

“We tried to learn from those states where it was implemented and it didn’t work,” Pierucci said. “But overwhelmingly in the areas we tried to pattern off of, they saw an increase in student satisfaction and growth.”

Waddington agrees that when comparing voucher programs across state lines, people should think about the differences in program design and implementation. However, he said, most of these programs have more similarities than differences.

Harris, the Tulane professor, added that he doesn’t think Florida, West Virginia and Arizona have quality data that show how effective the voucher programs are in each state. Students in those programs do not have to take the same state test as their public school peers, and Harris sees Utah’s program being designed in a similar way that will make it hard to tell if it is working or not.

In Utah’s new voucher program, students have to either submit a portfolio each year showing the student’s achievements or take an assessment.

Pierucci said she thinks it is important that voucher students are being compared against themselves rather than other students.

“We don't know what that kid's unique learning abilities might be and what improvement looks like for them,” Pierucci said. “I think from a financial and bookkeeping perspective, I want to be clear we have quite a few guardrails in place.”

The voucher program will be audited annually by an independent auditor. After the Utah Fits All scholarship gets rolling, the scholarship program manager has to annually submit a report to the Legislature’s Education Interim Committee detailing things like the number of students who got scholarships, how many students came from public schools, if there are any students on a waitlist and what the scholarship money was spent on, generally.

Waddington said he does not think these measures will provide public accountability to taxpayers. He also thinks it will be hard to study the effectiveness of Utah’s voucher programs on academics because of the variation in what voucher students are sending in to show what they’ve learned, the lack of comparable measures for public and other private school students and because the assessments and portfolios are reviewed internally.

From Waddington’s perspective as an educational policy researcher, if there is not substantial data on student outcomes and a way to compare voucher students to other students, there won’t be objective evidence to show the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the program.

“Outside of the financial tracking, there doesn't appear to be anything else in place to really get a grasp of, is this working?” Waddington said. “That's a little scary because you don't know what's happening to your money.”

The Utah State Board of Education still has to find an agency to manage the scholarship program. Parents will be able to apply for the money starting in March of 2024.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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