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Parents benefitting from Utah Fits All school vouchers ask to intervene in UEA lawsuit

Two Utah moms said the lawsuit would deprive their kids of the education they chose

By Alixel Cabrera - Utah News Dispatch | Jun 6, 2024

Spenser Heaps, Utah News Dispatch

The Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City is pictured Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024.

Less than a week after the state’s largest teacher union filed a lawsuit against the Utah Fits All Scholarship Program, two parents who were scheduled to benefit from the funding filed a motion to be included in the litigation process in order to defend the program.

Maria Ruiz, a mom of two children who attend private schools, and Tiffany Brown, who has seven children who attend private schools, argued that the scholarship program — which provides up to $8,000 to eligible K-12 students for education expenses, including private school tuition and fees, homeschooling, tutoring services, testing fees and materials — “will be life changing” and a relief for the “immense financial burden” of  their kids’ educations.

Stopping the program implementation “would deprive Maria’s and Tiffany’s children — as well as approximately 10,000 other Utah children — of the educational opportunity that the Legislature, in its discretion, sought to provide them,” according to the request.

The mothers requested to become intervenor-defendants to fight against an initial legal challenge by two parents, a public school teacher, a Utah State Board of Education member and the Utah Education Association. Ruiz and Brown are ready to demonstrate that the program is constitutional and doesn’t violate the Legislature’s obligation to public schools, among other counterarguments, according to the motion.

“This educational choice program wouldn’t just help my children but has the chance to positively impact every child in the state,” Brown said in a news release. “Not every child learns the same way and some families, like mine, have children with special needs, so it is important that parents can afford educational options that best address a child’s needs.”

After Gov. Spencer Cox signed HB215 into law, which established the program; more than 27,000 students applied for the 10,000 spots available in the first year of the program, according to the release.

However, the scholarships have been controversial in the public education system. The program is set to use about $82.5 million in taxpayer funding a year. UEA argues that violates the Utah Constitution’s core mandates that establish that the state must provide education and that education systems must be free, open to all students, and controlled and supervised by the State Board of Education.

“The voucher program diverts funds from already underfunded public schools, where 90% of our children learn, and places vulnerable students at risk by stripping away protections and accountability,” UEA President Renée Pinkney said last Wednesday when the union filed the suit. “This alarming situation should raise serious concerns about the future of public education in Utah.”

The request by the program’s proponents says that if they aren’t allowed to speak in the case, the court will not have insight into issues “that the current parties lack,” according to the document. They could provide testimony about how the scholarships would help them meet the “unique educational needs of their children.”

Ruiz, who lives in Tooele, said in the motion that both her kids attend a Catholic school in Draper, which she believes caters best to their needs — and their faith. One of her children experienced bullying and “the public school did not help with the development of his social skills.”

As a sole provider of the family and working as a manager at a restaurant, her salary is less than 200% of the federal poverty level — which grants her priority under the program’s guidelines — and she constantly worries that she may not be able to continue to afford her kids’ tuition.

If the program is invalidated “it will be devastating for Maria and her family. Maria and her husband will continue to endure great financial hardship and will lack the security of knowing that they can continue providing (their kids) the education that is best for them as the years progress,” the motion reads

The Partnership for Educational Choice is representing the mothers in the motion. The partnership is a project of the Institute for Justice — a libertarian public interest law firm — and EdChoice, a nonprofit that supports using public funding for students outside traditional school public settings.

“The Utah Education Association’s lawsuit is trying to deny Utah families that opportunity in order to protect the monopoly on education that it currently enjoys,” said Arif Panju, a managing attorney at the Institute for Justice said in a news release. “They will not succeed in depriving Utah families from using an educational program that puts students before systems.”

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.

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