August 10, 2017 Print

A group from Utah's business community is seeking a tax hike to support public schools for ballot referendum and is currently gathering signatures to put the tax hike on the 2018 ballot. Groups like Sutherland Institute, however, would rather have the state try a new approach to education first.

The Sutherland Institute, an Atlas Network partner based in Salt Lake City, launched a new website to educate policymakers and the public on an innovative approach to education funding that would not involve another tax hike.

“Sutherland Institute is using this website and other social media outlets to start a new conversation about education reform among policymakers and interested citizens,” said Christine Cooke, education policy director for Sutherland Institute.

In 2007, Utah defeated by way of referendum a universal voucher bill, which would have allowed all children in Utah a scholarship to attend the school of their parents’ choice. According to Cooke, “The 2007 defeat has had a chilling effect on the education choice movement in the state for the last decade.” With the launch of the new website, Sutherland Institute hopes to change past sentiment about school choice so that people will again look for new ways to fund education.

The website discusses innovations, including the flexible spending account (FSA), an account that is privately held by a student’s parents. Unlike vouchers, which only allow parents to choose among private schools, FSAs allow parents to spend funds on a variety of educational programs including tutors, online courses, college exams, and curriculum. Sutherland Institute’s site provides basic information on FSAs, as well as shareable content including video testimonials of families who benefited from a similar policy in Arizona.

Currently, there are no FSA programs in Utah, which is something Sutherland Institute hopes to change. This year, the Institute helped establish college savings accounts for children stuck in intergenerational poverty. Sutherland Institute also helped focus early childhood education resources on at-risk children.

“…the reality behind education choice [is this]: all students are different and have unique needs,” says Cooke. “We want the public to know about the FSA policy long before legislature passes a bill.”