Utah Bill Would Give Public Education Money Directly To Student 'Savings Accounts,' Not Schools

Funding for public education could go directly to the pockets of students, instead of to schools, under a proposal in the Utah legislature.

The Utah House Education committee decided Wednesday to stay a bill that would require the state to put much what it gives now to high schools into "education savings accounts" for students in grades 9-12. Lawmakers elected to continue working on House Bill 123, sponsored by Republican state Rep. John Dougall, potentially starting the program as a pilot in some test schools before implementing the changes statewide.

According to the bill in its current form, students would receive around $6,400 a year that they could use to take classes at public high schools, universities, technical schools and public online courses. Students would be charged per-course and any money left over in student accounts would roll over to be used toward that student's post-secondary education.

Where would the money come from? It's already there, provided today by the state based on a standard funding formula. Currently, the money is captured by each individual high school, and that's where it stays -- in a closed system. What Dougall's bill envisions is a new model that would unfreeze those dollars so that a high school education could be customized to the needs of individual students -- needs identified by the students themselves and their parents.

The bill would also force schools to serve students more optimally by creating competition, Dougall told the Salt Lake Tribune. Schools would still be the direct recipients of state funding for programs like special education.

"Today, what we have is top down funding and we know many of the challenges that come with top down funding," Dougall said. "HB123 is what I call grassroots funding where we fund the student rather than institutions."

While a Herald editorial proclaims that Dougall "deserves a medal" for his proposal, critics are questioning the bill's logistics. Republican state Rep. Steve Eliason told the Tribune he's concerned that schools would expand class sizes to reduce costs and students who opt to take more expensive, high-level classes could run out of funds before finishing high school. Dougall's bill does require a limitation on course fees.

Issues of where public education funding should go is perhaps most visible in the debate surrounding school vouchers -- in which public dollars "follow" a student, shifting that funding from a public institution to charter or private schools as students make transfers out of traditional public schools.

Voucher programs have recently gained momentum in schools across the country. And like Dougall's education savings bill in Utah, school voucher bills aim to give parents and children more say in where students go to school and how they are educated.

Shortly after Indiana began the nation's broadest school voucher program, thousands of students transferred from public to private schools in August, causing spiked enrollment at Catholic schools that were a hair away from the same fate as Philadelphia and were on the brink of closure for low enrollment.

The initial shift realized what public school advocates feared most: a mass exodus of students from public institutions, and taking with them the public dollars that funded those schools. Public school principals pleaded with parents not to move their children.

But in a reversal, the school voucher law also had some Indiana parents taking their students out of private schools -- placing them in public ones for a year to earn eligibility for the publicly funded program. While the intended moves are temporary, public school educators are hoping that it could also attract more students who are traditionally privately educated to stay in public schools.

"They'll be in public school for a year, which gives them a great chance to make the sale," state Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma told The Journal Gazette. "The best thing is the families have options and they can select the option that is best for their student."

The bills for proposed programs as well as already-implemented voucher programs have drawn ire from critics, who say the initiatives pull money away from public schools, which are already struggling with budget cuts, resulting in loss of programs and teacher layoffs. An Indiana judge also upheld Indiana's school voucher law in January, rejecting opponents' arguments that the program unconstitutionally uses public money to support religion.

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