Even if voters approve giving $3,000 a year per child in state vouchers to help non-wealthy families pay private school tuition, families would still need another $4,800 or so per child to afford typical annual tuition in Utah.

That suggests that vouchers — the center of this year's biggest election battle — might give many needy families only weak-to-moderate help toward truly affording typical private school tuition. However, vouchers could cover all tuition costs at a few schools at the cheaper end of the spectrum.

That is according to calculations and research by the Deseret Morning News. The figures are similar to state tuition averages calculated by the anti-voucher Utahns for Public Schools.

"The people who are reportedly supposed to be the beneficiary of this are really going to have a hard time accessing private schools even with the voucher," said Lisa Johnson, spokeswoman for Utahns for Public Schools. "When you consider the income level you have to be at to get a $3,000 voucher, that's a lot of money to come up with to make the difference ... and if you have more than one child to come up with that money is a real barrier for Utah families."

The voucher program would allow families to access private school tuition vouchers ranging from $500 to $3,000 per student attending a private school, based on parents' income.

The News telephoned all private schools listed by the State Office of Education about their tuition and enrollment. Some refused data or did not respond. The newspaper also excluded from calculations many treatment centers for drugs and other problems where overall treatment costs (usually very high) did not break out tuition for schooling there.

The research resulted in a database of 64 private schools, in which more than 13,700 of the 16,000-plus private school students estimated by the state are enrolled.

With it, the newspaper calculated a weighted average (which takes into account how many students pay tuition at different levels). It used "normal" tuition rates, not counting discounts for such things as multiple students from the same family or subsidies by Catholic parishes for members at Catholic schools.

For all private schools providing information, the weighted average for tuition was $7,824 a year per student — more than $4,800 beyond what the $3,000 state voucher for non-wealthy students would cover.

For just those private schools that have identified themselves to the pro-voucher Parents for Choice in Education as willing to take vouchers now, the weighted average is a trifle lower: $7,777.

"The numbers we have been using are around $8,000 a year ... so that matches what our message has been all along and that it is it's difficult for a family to come up with the difference between the voucher and the actual tuition amounts," said Johnson. "People need to be aware of those costs before they vote."

Leaders of the pro-voucher Parents for Choice in Education have been reporting the average private school tuition bill in Utah is around $4,500.

Leah Barker, spokesperson for PCE, said their calculations only take into account private schools with grades K-8, not K-12.

"We feel that there aren't a lot of private high schools in Utah... and it's most important for children to get a solid foundation and that is going to happen in the beginning years," she said. "We use the K-8 formula because that is where this is going to matter the most ... then (students) could transition to any number of programs in a public high school and their needs would be met just fine."

The range of tuition varies greatly in the state, from about $62,000 a year (based on 10 months) at the Oakley School in Park City to just $1,170 a year at the Monument Valley Seventh-Day Adventist Mission School.

Among schools that have identified themselves to Parents for Choice in Education as willing to take vouchers, the range varies from an average high of $13,906 at the Waterford School in Sandy to a low average tuition of $2,135 at the Children's Christian School in Taylorsville.

A $3,000 voucher would fully cover average tuition at nine of the 62 schools that provided data. Another seven schools had average tuition between $3,000 and $4,000. Twenty schools had tuition between $4,001 and $5,000. And 28 schools had tuition over $5,000.

Of note, many private schools could not accommodate many more students if they wanted to take advantage of vouchers to enroll.

For example, the Catholic Schools of the Diocese of Salt Lake, the largest private school system in the state with 5,407 students in 14 schools, estimates it has capacity to add only 317 more elementary/middle school students and 373 high school students.

Current capacity at its schools ranges from a high of 101 percent (at both the St. John the Baptist elementary and middle schools in Draper) to a low of 68 percent (at St. Olaf school in Bountiful,) according to data provided by the diocese.

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Only about one of every 34 school-aged students in Utah now attends private school, according to analysis of estimates and data from the State Office of Education.

Institutions such as the Challenger Schools were not counted in News' calculations because they did not respond to inquiries for data and because they have indicated they would not accept private school vouchers, should they become available, because they want to avoid government control in their schools.


E-mail: lee@desnews.com, terickson@desnews.com