SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – A divided Legislature approved one of the nation’s broadest voucher programs Friday, allotting up to $3,000 for any public school student to put toward private school tuition.

Voucher programs in the handful of other states that have them generally are aimed at poor families or students attending schools that have poor academic records. There will be no such restrictions in Utah, which has the largest class sizes in the country and until now has spent less per student than any other state.

The Senate approved the bill 19-10 on Friday, a week after the House endorsed it by a single vote, 38-37. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans. Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Republican whose children attend public schools, has said he will sign the bill into law.

The vouchers will be open to any of Utah’s 512,000 public school students. The amount will depend on family income, but even affluent families would be eligible for at least $500 per child. Students already in private schools would not be eligible.

The plan, which goes into effect this fall, is expected to cost $9.3 million in its first year and $327 million over 12 years. Utah has a $1.6 billion budget surplus. Public schools that lose enrollment will still receive a portion of state funding for five years after each student departs.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Stephen Urquhart, tried to alleviate concerns that public schools would be shortchanged. In Utah, income taxes must pay for public education. The money for vouchers would come from the state’s general fund, which pays for all other state programs.

“What thrills me is that we’re providing an option without impacting public education,” said Republican Sen. Pete Knudson.

Nearly every education organization in the state, especially the teachers union, opposes the program, saying tax dollars should not be spent at private schools.

“This has nothing to do about educating children. … It’s about taking taxpayer dollars and giving them to private industry,” said Sen. Gene Davis, a Democrat.

Ohio, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia offer publicly funded voucher programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Ohio and Utah also offer vouchers for special education, as do Arizona and Florida.


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