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Utah Education Association files lawsuit against school choice scholarship program

SALT LAKE CITY – The Utah Education Association filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging the recently implemented Utah Fits All voucher program, which provides private schools with $82.5 million in public funds.

“This lawsuit is necessary to ensure that public funds stay in public schools where they can provide the greatest benefit to all of our students,” the education association said in a statement.

Passed in January 2023, HB215 provides eligible families with $8,000 scholarships for private schools and other private educational institutions and provides state-certified educators with a $6,000 salary increase.

The Utah Education Association was joined in its initial opposition to the bill by the Utah State Board of Education, the Utah PTA, school superintendents, business administrators and school boards.

The lawsuit was filed by the Utah Education Association and Kevin Labresh and Terra Cooper on behalf of their children, Amy Barton and Carol Lear, an elected member of the Utah State Board of Education.

It is argued that the law violates the right to free education protected by Utah's constitution.

“Income tax revenues are being diverted to fund private schools that 1) are not free, 2) are not open to all students, and 3) are not controlled and overseen by the State Board of Education,” the lawsuit states.

The group behind the lawsuit is asking a judge to declare the program unconstitutional and permanently stop implementation of the law, even though it has been in effect for nearly two years.

Utah Education Association President Renée Pinkney called the lawsuit “a critical step in defending the integrity of our public education system.”

“The details of the voucher program are troubling. It takes vital resources away from already underfunded public schools to pay for private school vouchers that are double the amount paid to public school students,” Pinkney said. “This discrepancy is not only unfair, it is a deliberate undermining of the public education system.”

Pinkney was referring to comments made by Allison Sorensen, executive director of Education Opportunity 4 Every Child – a key leader in the fight for school vouchers – ahead of HB215’s passage in January 2023.

In recordings posted on social media platform X and shared online just hours before the bill's passage, Sorensen can be heard saying she wants to “destroy public education” and insinuating that lawmakers want the same – although politicians later condemned Sorensen's comments.

Lear said she believes the voucher program is not only unconstitutional, but that it takes money away from public education.

Renée Pinkney, president of the Utah Education Association, speaks at a news conference near the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. The UEA has filed a lawsuit challenging the state's voucher program.
Utah Education Association President Renée Pinkney speaks at a press conference near the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. The UEA has filed a lawsuit challenging the state's voucher program. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

“The entities filing this lawsuit worked very hard to analyze the situation, to analyze the constitutional issues, to look at the federal constitutional issues, if there are any, and the state constitutional issues, and they wanted to get it right,” Lear said. “(They) ultimately concluded that it was not fair and it was not constitutional.”

Supporters of the voucher program defend it by arguing that it gives students choice in education. The scholarships are currently awarded to 10,000 Utah students, with financial need being considered first. ACE Scholarships administers the program and said more than 27,000 students have applied.

In a statement released after the lawsuit was filed Wednesday, Robyn Bagley, executive director of Utah Education Fits All, condemned the lawsuit.

“It is not at all surprising that once parents are given the opportunity to decide their children's education, the opposition desperately tries to regain control and return to the status quo. This lawsuit is loud activism and a shameful attempt to deprive Utah students and families of educational opportunities. We are very confident that their efforts will not succeed. Utah's legislature has done its due diligence and passed responsible legislation that is consistent with Utah's Constitution,” Bagley said, among other things.

But Labresh, who works as a school psychologist in the Davis School District and is also the father of a special needs student in the district, expressed concern that the voucher program disproportionately affects students like his son and others he works with.

“The National Association of School Psychologists recommends a ratio of one school psychologist per 500 students. In Utah, that ratio is currently one school psychologist per over 2,000 students,” Labresh said. “That makes it really difficult for me and my colleagues to provide comprehensive behavioral and mental health support. I don't think cutting more funding for that is the solution.”

The full complaint can be found here.

Contribute: Lindsay Aerts

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