Voucher vote looms. But what are these polarizing payouts?
Voucher supporters believe that, if Referendum 1 passes, an exodus of students moving from public to private education would leave most of their state funding behind for other students, and that would take some financial pressure off public schools. Vouchers, supporters claim, would give parents of middle-and low-income students more options such as smaller schools and smaller class sizes.
Voucher detractors say vouchers would pull funding from what has been the lowest-funded education system in the nation, weakening Utah public schools. Another concern: The public could be funding private schools that detractors claim have little accountability and/or could be religion-based. Unlike public schools, private schools can be selective in their admissions.
What would the actual results be if vouchers were to pass? It would likely be some of both scenarios.
Referendum 1 would make vouchers available for those parents of students in public education who believe their children would do better in private schools. They would also benefit students who have moved into the state who want to attend eligible private schools, and students beginning school, who are opting for a private education. Current students in private schools would receive no vouchers unless they qualify under low-income provisions.
Vouchers would range from $500 per year per-child, available for families of any income level, to $3,000 for families with lower income or with more family members.
Voucher proponents argue that, while public school works well for many children, some private schools offer what public schools do not. Some kids, they say, would do better in private schools with smaller class sizes and more individual attention. Some see benefit in religious schools.
That is not to say that public schools do not offer choice. Charles Sachs, head of the Park City Academy, admits public schools offer electives that smaller private schools cannot, with many private schools sticking to college preparatory classes. Students in public education can transfer to other public schools that have programs that they feel better suit their needs.
Public education has the facilities to serve special-needs children. The Carson Smith Scholarship, which is publicly funded, is available to special-needs students to attend private schools.
Voucher funding would come from the state’s General Fund, primarily from sales tax. The Legislative Fiscal Analyst estimates vouchers would cost the state $5.5 million during the first year of the program and, by the 13th year, would cost the state $71 million per year. the 13th year, all kindergarten through 12th grade Utah Students would have become eligible for vouchers.
State funding for primary and secondary public schools comes from the Uniform School Fund, funded by state income tax. Higher education may now also use the Uniform School Fund. A concern of voucher detractors hinges on vouchers possiblydepleting General Fund reserves, causing higher education to make inroads into the Uniform School Fund, hurting public schools.
The referendum allows for departing students to remain on the public school rolls. A portion of state funding would still go into the school district for up to five years after the student transfers to a private school.
Supporters of Referendum 1 argue that every student who leaves public education for a private school would leave most of the state money behind benefit remaining students.
Fewer students in public education could result in fewer schools being built, but many costs would not change significantly. Fewer students could result in a reduction of teachers, but likely not smaller classes. Park City School District strives to maintain a ratio of 23 students to one teacher.
Private schools cannot discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion or disability. But they do have the right to accept or reject students based on academic criteria and whether, for example, the school has the facilities and teachers who could benefit a student. Charles Sachs, head of the Park City Academy, said that prospective students have to have the potential to keep up with the rigorous curriculum or it would do the students a disservice to accept them.
Targeted potential students:
Would the law actually benefit middle-and lower-income students? While the three Park City private schools that would accept vouchers, The Park City Academy, The Colby School and the Winter Sports School, have tuition ranging from $12,000 to $15,000, they offer financial assistance and scholarships to some students. Tuition of private schools throughout the state averages about $4,000 per year. Vouchers could be used in combination with a school’s financial assistance.
McPolin Elementary School is a federally subsidized Title 1 school, having a large percentage of students from lower-income families. McPolin counselor Hugo Meza said that he doesn’t know of any students who would be able to use a voucher. He said that many families don’t have cars to transport kids to private schools, and the families are barely getting by as it is. "I have had not one parent ask me about vouchers," he said.
Legality of Referendum 1:
The Utah constitution prohibits the use of public funding for religious purposes. The Office of the Utah Attorney General said that lawsuits could stall the implementation of vouchers, or, a judge could rule for vouchers to proceed during litigation.
Voucher detractors believe public money raised through taxes should be used to support public entities, for the benefit of all. However, it is not unusual for the state to establish contracts with private providers. The Utah Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst reports more than 600 contracts with local and private providers.
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