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Education Reporter

Utah Approves Unrestricted Voucher Program

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In recent years, several states have enacted programs that provide school vouchers for poor families, families zoned to failing schools, or students with special needs. But in February, Utah became the first state to approve a universal, statewide voucher program. Utah students who wish to attend private school will receive between $500 and $3,000 per year in tuition vouchers, depending on family income. The only students excluded are those who already attend private school.

The plan will go into effect this fall. State analysts predict that 3,000 students will accept vouchers in the program's first year. If predictions are accurate, the state will pay $9.3 million from its general fund in the first year, and $327 million over the first 12 years. Utah currently has a budget surplus of $1.6 billion.

Public schools that lose students will receive partial funding for each student for five years. 512,000 students currently attend public school in Utah.

"This state was built by pioneers, and now we're pioneering education reform," said Nancy Pomeroy, spokeswoman for the Salt Lake City-based group Parents for Choice in Education. The decision has been seven years in the making, and follows a 2005 decision to provide vouchers for students with disabilities.

Groups at the state and national level that are opposed to school choice have indicated they plan lawsuits against the voucher program. The Utah Public Education Coalition opposes the program, and is "reviewing legal strategies and options." On the national level, a spokeswoman for People for the American Way pointed out that the Utah Constitution prohibits government aid to religious schools.

The Institute for Justice, a legal firm that defends voucher programs, believes federal precedents and the Utah Constitution will allow the program. President Chip Mellor claims that because parents, not the government, will choose how to use the tuition vouchers, the plan is "a neutral program that neither favors nor disfavors religion." The Utah Constitution's actual language prohibits the state from making "any appropriations for the direct support of any school or educational institution controlled by any religious institution."

In 2002, the Institute for Justice defended Cleveland's voucher program in the Supreme Court. The court ruled in favor of the program, saying it allowed "individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious."

Last year, the Florida teachers union effectively challenged a voucher program for students attending failing schools. The Florida Constitution states that "adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality system of free public schools." In its ruling against the program, the state Supreme Court cited the lack of uniformity a statewide voucher program could create. However, several other types of school choice programs continue in Florida.

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