September 16, 2021
Utah Sen. Mike Lee made headlines this week after joining an amicus brief on a Supreme Court case at the intersection of religious freedom and education choice. The case involves a private school tuition assistance program for families in Maine who lack reasonable access to a district public school.
Education choice, while often generating controversial policy debates, nevertheless has the potential to help depoliticize classroom instruction and discussion in public schools. This is because it puts a healthy pressure on: (1) school leaders to have processes in place to encourage educators to stick to district curriculum decisions, and (2) educators to carefully select curriculum resources and instructional methods. Education choice combined with proactive curriculum transparency creates a strong system of accountability to parents for the curriculum and instructional choices of administrators and teachers.
But what does Utah’s current education choice landscape look like? It would be easy to believe that since Utahns voted down a voucher program in 2007, the state does not use taxpayer funds to help pay for private school tuition. However, that would not be accurate.
Not only does Utah have a voucher program, it has a range of education choice programs and policies built around private schools, public schools and schooling at home. They include vouchers, tax credits and tax credit scholarships, public school choice, and a diverse blend of taxpayer-funded online options.
Private school education choice programs
Carson Smith scholarship (voucher)
The Carson Smith scholarship is a voucher program for special needs students. Parents who believe that their student’s needs can be better addressed at a private school can get a voucher from the state to help pay for private school tuition up to a certain amount. For the 2021-22 school year, the voucher amount ranges from just over $3,000 to just under $10,000, depending on the grade level of the special needs student and the level of services being provided by the private school.
Special needs opportunity scholarships (tax credit scholarship/flex spending)
Utah’s newest education choice program, the special needs opportunity scholarship program, offers individuals state tax credits for donating to state-approved, nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations (SGO). SGOs take applications from families with special needs students and award scholarships to help pay for private school tuition or non-school education expenses, such as textbooks for homeschooling a special needs student or specialized educational therapies. Scholarships awarded vary in value, maxing out at just over $9,000.
My529 tax credit (tax credit)
The federal tax reform enacted in 2017 (the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act) allowed families with 529 college savings accounts to use those funds to pay for K-12 private school tuition. Long before the federal tax reform, Utah had in place a state income tax credit for money deposited in a 529 account. In effect, this means that any Utah family can contribute to their child’s My529 account to use those funds for tuition at a K-12 private school and claim a state income tax credit for the contribution. There are limits on the amount of 529 contributions eligible for the tax credit that vary by tax filing status, and the maximum credit a family can receive is 5% of the contribution limit ($204 in 2020 for someone married filing jointly).
Public school education choice programs
Open enrollment (public school choice)
According to Utah’s open enrollment law, K-12 public schools must accept students who do not live within the school’s geographic boundary as long as there is sufficient space available, as determined by the school’s “open enrollment threshold.” The formula for that threshold is laid out in state law.
Public charter schools (public school choice)
Utah’s public charter schools are “tuition-free public schools open to any Utah student.” Like district public schools, public charter schools are funded by taxpayer dollars. Unlike district public schools, each public charter school is governed by an independent board, rather than a local district school board. Public charter schools have flexibility to determine their own curriculum and different approaches to educating children.
School-at-home education choice programs
District/charter online schools (online option)
Some charter schools (e.g., Mountain Heights Academy, Utah Connections Academy, Utah Virtual Academy) are completely online. Some school districts (Alpine, Canyons, Davis, Jordan, Salt Lake, Washington) and charter schools (Canyon Grove Academy) offer digital learning options as well. All of these programs are designed to assist parents who want their child’s education to be run largely (although not necessarily entirely) out of their homes.
Some are explicitly tailored for homeschool families, while others offer a blend of at-home and in-school elements. One largely online school (MyTech High) offers parents the option to personalize their child’s curriculum and academic experience by customizing courses for their child.
Statewide online education program (online option)
The statewide online education program allows high school students (and soon middle school students) to earn high school graduation credit through individual, taxpayer-funded online classes. The program is primarily designed for students taking a limited number of online courses combined with enrollment in a brick-and-mortar public school, private school or home school. However, it also creates options to use the program to accelerate high school graduation by taking more credits than is typical during the year.
Dual enrollment (home/private school)
Utah’s dual enrollment law allows families the ability to enroll their children in some public school courses or programs while simultaneously attending a private school or home school. It expands the opportunities of home and private school students, for example, to participate in extracurricular activities such as band, choir or high school sports. It also would allow students to take particular courses at their local district school while still attending a private school or home school.
Utah’s education choice landscape contains a variety of education options and academic paths that give many parents choices for their children. However, policymakers and the public education system can arguably do more to strengthen education choice and make more options accessible to working families for whom things like schooling at home is not feasible. How to better depoliticize the classroom through such reforms will be the subject of a future blog post.
Even though the Supreme Court does not resolve a large proportion of the cases that are presented to it, the decisions it does issue reverberate to affect many other disputes through the principle of precedent. Its decisions on a handful of cases can, over time, expand and contract the rights of the entire nation.
For many voters, 2020 may have been their first experience with voting by mail. However, VBM in both the United States and Utah specifically is not new. In America, VBM has a history that spans centuries.
The judiciary branch is designed as a responsive, not proactive, branch of government. The court can’t tell Congress not to pass an unconstitutional law or tell the president not to issue a legally invalid order. It must wait until after those actions take effect and someone challenges them.