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Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. signed Utah's landmark school voucher bill without fanfare or a public announcement Monday.
His office insisted no extraordinary measures were taken to expedite the bill that makes Utah home to the nation's most expansive voucher program. Yet HB148, which passed the Senate on Friday afternoon, raced through its procedural House moves to land on Huntsman's desk Monday evening.
"It came over in due course," said Mike Mower, a Huntsman spokesman. "Gov. Huntsman said he would sign the bill and he did."
Huntsman did not alert the media and declined requests for an interview, but Mower said he signed the bill shortly after 5 p.m. Media outlets learned of the development from two pro-voucher groups - one based in Virginia. Within 15 minutes of the signing, they sent news releases hailing the nation's ''first-ever universal school choice program.'' Mower said Huntsman's office did not alert the groups that he had signed the bill.
Utah's new voucher law, which a legislative fiscal analyst said will cost $9.3 million its first year and $12.4 million in its second year, lets families spend between $500 and $3,000 in public funds per child on private school tuition, depending on family income. The option is open to all incoming kindergartners, all current public school students and private school children from low-income families.
Money for the vouchers comes from the state's general fund, not a fund set aside for public schools. The program will cost more each year until all private school students are using vouchers in 13 years, when the program will cost the state an estimated $48 million a year.
Utah's program dwarfs voucher programs in other states, which are available only to low-income students, students in a particular district, or students in struggling schools. Opponents of HB148 have discussed challenging it in court for potentially violating separation of church and state provisions.
Utah's constitution contains blunt language prohibiting the government from directing public funds to religious organizations. Such language may apply to parochial schools but the issue has not been tested in court, and both advocates and opponents of vouchers insist they will prevail if Utah's law is challenged.
The Institute for Justice, a nonprofit libertarian law firm based in Arlington, Va., pledged Monday to defend Utah's law in court. No groups have declared an intention to sue, but a lawsuit could take the form of an individual or group of families objecting to how the law is implemented, or asking for an injunction to block vouchers until constitutional concerns are resolved.
In the meantime, the state Office of Education can get to work implementing the program in time for its rollout in the fall.
Staffers have $100,000 and 20 weeks to hire an overseer, determine voucher income eligibility guidelines, set up a paper and online application process and compile a list of participating schools.
* DAN HARRIE contributed to this story.
* ELIGIBLE SCHOOLS: Must employ college-educated or skilled teachers, operate outside a residence, enroll at least 40 students and not discriminate based on race, color or national origin. They must give parents the results of a standardized test once a year and submit to a financial audit once every four years.
* HOW IT WOULD WORK: Vouchers would range from $3,000 per child for families who qualify for reduced-price lunch ($37,000 annual income for a family of four) to $500 for families earning 150 percent more ($92,500 a year). Money would be transferred directly from the state Office of Education to the private school parents choose.
* LIKELY COST: $9.3 million in the first year; $12.4 million the second.
* WHAT'S NEXT: The state Office of Education will work to implement the program so it can begin this fall, barring a legal challenge.