When the Utah State legislative session came to a close on March 3, private schools in Utah had a lot to celebrate. Four bills passed into law will have a significant impact on Catholic schools in the Diocese of Salt Lake City.
The bills were supported by Governor Spencer J. Cox, who was thanked by the private school community for his support. The work of President Stuart Adams, Speaker Brad Wilson and Representative Mike Schultz was also acknowledged, as were the sponsors of the bills.
These bills represent a shift in how our private schools will be funded. There is a growing recognition in Utah, especially by key state legislators, of the vital role that private schools play in supporting families with options that meet their unique needs.
The first bill, HB 215, sponsored by Representative Candice Pierucci and Senator Kirk Cullimore, passed in both the Utah House and Senate and was signed into law immediately by Governor Cox on Jan. 28. The law establishes the “Utah Fits All” scholarship program. It provides $42 million in scholarships for parents for private school and home school tuition and expenses. Each scholarship is valued at $8,000. In the first year (2024-25), there will be 5,312 scholarships available, and 100 percent of all students in Utah are eligible to apply. Low-income students will receive the first opportunity before other students apply.
SB 45, sponsored by Senator Lincoln Fillmore and Representative Kera Birkeland, passed in both the Utah House and Senate and will likely be signed into law by Governor Cox. It expands enrollment options in the State Online Education Program (SOEP) for private school students in grades 6-7-8.
Currently, students in grades seven and eight may register for two SOEP courses each year. SB 45 expands that option to six enrollments per year and allows sixth-graders to participate for the first time with up to six enrollments per year.
HB 167, sponsored by Cullimore and Birkeland, passed the Utah House and Senate and will be signed into law by Governor Cox. It fixes problems with the SOEP for private schools, which has grown significantly in the last three years, with over 15,000 enrollments. The technical repairs to the program will help private schools and the providers of online courses operate in a more robust and efficient manner. The most prominent feature of the bill allows private school teachers who are in the process of receiving a teaching credential to teach in the SOEP.
Finally, HB 398, sponsored by Representative Nelson Abbott and Fillmore, passed both the Utah House and Senate on the last day of the session. It improves the Special Needs tax credit program for private schools passed in 2019 for families with special needs to attend private schools. The bill granted the program’s scholarship organization, Children’s First Education Fund (CFEF), an expanded timeline for families to apply. The process used to determine a student’s disability has been streamlined. The scholarship amounts were increased to $8,000 and $10,000 per year based on family income.
Nancy Gibbs, legislative liaison for Juan Diego Catholic Schools, spoke about the coordination needed to make HB 215 a practical reality for private and homeschool families. She said, “The ‘Utah Fits All’ scholarship requires that our 16 Catholic schools help our families, especially low-income families, make applications as soon as the portal opens in March 2024.”
The passing of these bills is significant for the private school community in Utah. They will provide families with more options for education and support for children with special needs.
Catholic schools in the Diocese of Salt Lake City have reason to celebrate as they look forward to the implementation of these laws in the coming years.
Mark Longe, superintendent of Utah Catholic Schools, expressed gratitude for their passing, stating that they “will have a positive impact on families who desire to choose the educational environment that best fits the needs of their children.” He also thanked those who worked to pass the bills, stating that their efforts “demonstrate a commitment to private and Catholic education in Utah, that enjoys a rich history dating back over 150 years since before the state of Utah was founded.”
Dr. Galey Colosimo is principal of Juan Diego Catholic High School and executive director of the Utah Private Schools Association.