Utah Fits All scholarship can cover extracurriculars on top of private tuition

Applications are already pouring in for the brand new Utah Fits All scholarship, with parents hoping for an $8,000 piece of the $80 million in public money now available through vouchers — all of which can go to private school tuition, yes, but also children’s ballet lessons, karate classes and more.

That’s because extracurricular activities are considered “educational expenses” covered by the state’s largest-ever school voucher program, established last year under HB215 despite opposition from nearly every education organization in Utah.

Initially, the state had allocated $42 million for the program’s inaugural year, which begins this fall. It amounted to enough funding for about 5,000 students to each receive an allotted $8,000 share.

But lawmakers in late February injected another $40 million into the pot — months before the program even launches — meaning roughly 10,000 Utah students can now receive scholarships.

Early counts suggest a lot of families are interested: By 6 p.m. on Feb. 28, the day the application portal went live, more than 5,000 applications had already been submitted, representing more than 8,000 students, because some families submitted one application for siblings, according to the Alliance for Choice in Education (ACE). The was organization hired by the Utah State Board of Education to manage the voucher program and application process.

“This huge demand shows that parents and students are hungry to gain access to the best educational options for their needs,” said Jackie Guglielmo, vice president of Education Savings Account programs at ACE.

Vouchers not just for private school tuition

Utah law allows students who are homeschooled and attending microschools to use vouchers for a variety of “educational expenses.”

Those expenses are broadly defined as costs “related to extracurricular activities, field trips, educational supplements and other educational experiences.”

Still, that money can only be spent through “qualifying providers” that ACE, the program manager, vets and selects.

[Read more: Everything you need to know about Utah’s new private school scholarship program]

So far, ACE has approved roughly 160 providers ranging from subscription-box retailers to online film programs to virtual schools. The list will likely continue to grow, because there is no deadline for providers to apply to participate in the program, according to ACE’s website.

For instance, parents could use their voucher funds to pay for private violin lessons with Amy Wilhelm, a seasoned violinist with over 35 years of teaching experience; vocal lessons with indie-pop singer-songwriter Sunny Grace; swimming lessons at the British Swim School, which has several locations across the state; and ballet classes at C&C Ballet Academy in South Jordan, according to ACE’s current provider list.

There are also a selection of online courses and virtual tutoring services approved for voucher use. Those include “Science Mom,” an online course provider for a variety of subjects; “Jackie’s Classroom,” a Utah-based in-person and online tutoring provider; and Mathnasium Learning Centers, an organization that specializes in math tutoring with locations across the state.

What else can the vouchers cover?

Individuals offering an “educational service” can also be considered “qualified providers” under Utah law.

ACE has approved several independent “educational service” providers in Utah, including “The Field Trip Lady,” also known as Hollie Hendricks

Hendricks, a former teacher and author of two English-language workbooks, according to her website, says she facilitates field trips for home-educated families and weekly “holistic, project-based” classes on a variety of subjects.

For example, Hendricks told The Salt Lake Tribune she uses a math resource called “Mathematics Their Way,” by Mary Baratta-Lorton, which encourages educators to use physical games and real-life context to teach math, rather than abstract concepts.

She said that while her field trips are geared toward homeschooled students, they are also open to anyone interested. For trips to places like museums, Hendricks said she charges participants $1 above a facility’s advertised group rate.

Providers like Hendricks can be sole proprietorships, have an LLC, or be an S-corporation or C-corporation. But at minimum, they must have a federal employer identification number; business name, address, phone number and website; a description of services and costs; and provide all requested documentation to ACE during the application process.

Alicia Lee said she will soon be launching her business “Calm For Kids,” which was recently approved as a Utah Fits All qualified provider, as a “means to provide homeschooled kids and all kids a place to learn to calm their active minds and nerves and find their peaceful focus.”

“Classes will include practicing mindfulness, social and emotional learning through activities, art and group discussion,” Lee said. “Each class is designed to help kids manage the challenges of their lives and learn to calm their minds and focus to improve learning.”

She charges $10 per child each session, and classes are held both in-person at her Syracuse, Utah, home or over Zoom.

Which private schools can vouchers help cover tuition at?

The roster of currently approved private schools includes all Utah Catholic Schools, according to the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City’s website, as well as other schools like the Park City Day School and Mount Vernon Academy.

While the majority of approved private schools are Christian, one is Islamic, and several others are secular or nondenominational.

Other smaller private schools like White House Academy, in Vernal, are also listed as qualified providers. On its website, the school says it’s “creating a community of patriotic, freedom loving, Americans” and offers a computerless educational experience for students.

“Times are changing,” its website states. “These are not your mama’s public schools.”

Annaliese White, president of the White House Academy, said that sentiment is meant for parents who want a more “traditional” education for their children.

“We often hear from parents about their experience in public schools growing up, and the contrast with their child’s experience in public schools now,” said White. “Traditional values have been diluted or replaced in the presentation of nearly all of the subjects, most notably but not limited to history and science. This is important to some families.”

In anticipation of the Utah Fits All scholarship program — and the influx of public money that will be available to approved parents — White House Academy announced in an October 2023 newsletter that it would be increasing its tuition and fees.

“We will be raising our tuition and fees next school year (2024-2025),” the newsletter stated. ”This is in conjunction with the roll-out of the [Utah Fits All] Scholarships. Please go online to [Utah Fits All] to apply for these scholarships.”

White said the school has been charging “extremely low” tuition for years, though she did not specify a tuition amount, and said the academy relies on volunteers and teachers to “work for less.” For the 2024-25 school year, tuition will range from $6,000 to $8,000 annually, depending on grade level.

“Our tuition has needed to be higher for a long time, to keep up with inflation, but also to be fair to our teachers who are just as qualified and work just as hard as their counterparts,” White said.

White House Academy teachers are required to have a bachelor’s degree and a “love” of “the restored gospel of Jesus Christ,” but they are not required to hold teaching licenses, according to information available on the school’s website.

White told The Tribune that teaching experience and “qualities of competence demonstrated through testing” are also requirements.

Organizing demand for vouchers — before the vouchers launched

In early February, lawmakers requested a $108 million increase in spending for the school voucher program for this fall, arguing that demand significantly exceeded available funds at the time.

Lawmakers said they knew demand was high because pro-school-choice nonprofit Utah Education Fits All had been helping to collect “preapplications” in anticipation of the voucher program’s launch.

The organization, which adds the word “education” to the name of the state scholarship program, initially created confusion on its website about the program, claiming as early as last summer that families could “preapply” for the state scholarship via an online form.

The true purpose of the form, the organization further explained in an FAQ section of its website, was “to demonstrate demand for the Utah Fits All Scholarship” and seek “an increased appropriation before the first scholarships are awarded for the 2024-25 school year.”

Utah Education Fits All has been working closely with ACE leading up to the program’s launch. Representatives from ACE have attended webinars hosted by Utah Education Fits All that aim to educate the public about how to apply and how recipients can use the funds.

During a Nov. 28 webinar, for instance, Robyn Bagley, executive director for Utah Education Fits All, said she had been talking to ACE “for weeks,” adding that Utah Education Fits All is “prescreening” schools and scholarship applicants for ACE.

ACE officials said that while the organization is not affiliated with Utah Education Fits All, they have accepted invites to attend and speak at webinars.

“ACE will work with any group to promote the Utah Fits All Scholarship Program and ensure accurate and timely information is relayed to parents,” ACE officials said. “No group is acting on behalf, or for, ACE Scholarships to screen or select families or providers that apply for the state program.”

The Utah Fits All scholarship application portal will remain open until April 15. If more applicants apply than there are scholarships available, low-income families will receive priority, as required by Utah law.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

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