They're contentious. They're confusing. And they're leaving voters asking ... What is the voucher program?
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
If approved by voters, the law will provide vouchers of between $500 and $3,000 per eligible student, depending on family income and size. For at least the first five years, the money would come from the state's general fund and leave some per-student funding for those who transferred to private schools in the public school system.
Proponents are pushing the program as a way to help alleviate overcrowding in public schools; to empower families, especially low-income ones, with more control over their children's education; and to improve public schools by providing competition.
Opponents warn the voucher program would harm public schools by draining resources from an already stressed system; cross the church-state divide by giving tax dollars to religious institutions; and needlessly subsidize upper-income families that already can afford to send their children to private schools.
YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED
Why is the law coming up for a vote?
Opponents gathered more than 120,000 signatures on petitions to force the law to a referendum vote. If a majority approves, the law will take effect. If a majority disapproves, the law will be scrapped.
Who is behind the voucher proposal?
The Republican majority of the Utah Legislature, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a number of businesses and trade groups and the conservative Sutherland Institute. Most of the funding has come from the family of Patrick Byrne, CEO of Overstock.com and an ardent believer in private education.
Who opposes the voucher proposal?
The Utah Education Association and its national affiliate, the National Education Association, the PTA, the NAACP and the Democratic minority of the Utah Legislature. Most of the funding has come from the NEA.
Why are we seeing so many ads with such different claims about the voucher program?
Each side is committed to getting its message out to voters, spending more than $8 million at last count.
Which students would be eligible to participate in the voucher program?
Students just turning school age (born after Sept. 1, 2001) or enrolled as a full-time public-school student on Jan. 1, 2007, or moving into Utah after Jan. 1, 2007, of below-income.
How much will the voucher program cost taxpayers?
An estimated $430 million during its 13-year phase-in (after all private school students have become eligible,) according to an impartial state analysis.
But will the voucher program save schools money?
Yes. School districts are estimated to save between $95 million and $265 million over the 13-year phase-in, according to the same analysts. The estimate assumes that public schools will have fewer students to educate because they would transfer to private schools.
How many students would be affected by the voucher program?
An estimated eligible 5,400 students would switch from public to private schools the first year. By the 13th year, some 25,000 students would be on the voucher program, say those analysts.
Are there enough private schools to handle a big influx of new students?
There are now 118 private schools in Utah, with a student population of more than 16,000 students. But only 75 of those schools enroll enough students (a minimum of 40) to participate in the program, according to the State Office of Education.
A private scholarship foundation for low-income students estimates there are 4,000 slots available in private academies for new students, and that additional schools would open.
Are there income limits on who qualifies for the vouchers?
No. Any family, regardless of income, would qualify for the $500 per student. The maximum amount of $3,000 would only go to low-income households. A single mother of three making $30,000 annually would receive the full amount. But a single parent with only one child and that same income would get a bit less: $2,750.
Is the law constitutional?
That would be up to courts to decide, if challenged. The program provides vouchers to parents, who could sign it over to a religious-based school. Some would argue that illegally gives public money to churches, while others say it is going to the parents.
Would a voucher pay the full cost of private tuition?
In most cases, no. The Legislative Fiscal Analyst calculates the average tuition at $8,000 annually. Voucher supporters, citing a Utah State University study, say average tuition is closer to $4,000.
If passed, will the voucher program expand?
Yes. Voucher supporters see it as a crucial solution to an expected flood of 150,000 students over the next decade. Opponents see it as an ineffective diversion at best; at worst, a drain on limited school funding.
Doesn't Utah already have a voucher program?
Yes, a limited one. The Carson Smith Scholarship for Special Needs began providing vouchers to about 400 special-needs kids in 2005.
So why is this such a big deal?
The new voucher law, if approved by voters, would be the most comprehensive in the nation. Some voucher programs exist but are strictly limited by income or to targeted schools. No state has implemented a voucher plan in which all families with school-age children could participate.