Utah becomes the latest battleground in the fight over
education savings accounts

Utah becomes the latest battleground in the fight over education savings accounts

The headline: Utah’s largest teachers union filed a lawsuit against the nation’s second most expansive program that allows parents to direct their children’s public education funding. 

Driving the news: The Utah Education Association challenged the law just weeks before 10,000 students were expected to start using their Utah Fits All scholarship funding, and more than a year after the legislature approved the program. The $82.5 million education savings account program grants eligible students up to $8,000 each that can be spent on private school tuition and approved educational goods and services. Though eligibility is universal, low-income families receive priority. The state also has two other school choice scholarship programs for students with special needs. 

The complaint: Union officials, joined by a teacher, parent and a state school board member, allege that the program drains money from district schools and would deprive students with special needs of services guaranteed only in public schools. It asks a judge to declare the program unconstitutional and stop it permanently. 

Education choice opponents have used these arguments in lawsuits filed in other states. What didn’t get discussed at the union’s news conference on Wednesday was Utah’s Blaine amendment. These bans on public funds flowing to religious institutions in state constitutions have continued to be among opponents’ legal tools of choice even after two landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the past four years struck them down. Utah’s constitution says: 

Neither the state of Utah nor its political subdivisions may make any appropriation for the direct support of any school or educational institution controlled by any religious organization. 

Yes, but: Though lawsuit sidestepped the Blaine amendment, it cited another part of Utah’s constitution specifying that the legislature shall provide a public education system that is free and open to all students and “free from sectarian control.” 

What opponents are saying: The union blasted the state for giving ESA students more than double the amount it spends on public school students. 

“This discrepancy is not just unfair, it is a deliberate undermining of public education,” Utah Education Association President Renée Pinkney said. 

However, the reality of how Utah students are funded is more complex. While the state provides direct aid of about $4,000 per student to public schools, it shares costs with local districts through property taxes and motor vehicle fees. The final total ends up being more than $11,000 per student, according to the Libertas Institute, which published a breakdown after opponents made those claims earlier this year.  Students who fall into certain categories, such as, those with special needs, English language learners or those who attend high-poverty schools, get more money from the state. 

What school choice advocates are saying: “Families in every state deserve the right to choose the best education for their children, and it is shameful but not surprising that the teachers unions are pulling out all the stops trying to block this opportunity in Utah,” said Ryan Cantrell, vice president of government affairs for the American Federation for Children. “The fact that more than 27,000 students applied for 10,000 scholarships in the first year of the program demonstrates the incredible demand for choice in Utah, and the unions are on the wrong side of this issue.” 

On defense: The Partnership for Educational Choice, a joint initiative of the Institute for Justice and EdChoice, announced plans to intervene in and defend the program on behalf of participating families.

“Utah Fits All scholarship program empowers parents to choose the education that will work best for their children,” IJ managing attorney Arif Panju said. “The Utah Education Association is trying to deny Utah families that opportunity in order to protect the monopoly on education that it currently enjoys. The union and its allies will not succeed in depriving families of the desperately needed alternatives that Utah Fits All provides.”  

Thomas M. Fisher, EdChoice vice president and director of litigation, praised Utah lawmakers for putting families first.  

“Utah was right to prioritize students’ needs over a state monopoly, and we will eagerly defend its decision to empower families.” 



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