$36 million school voucher bill fails at Utah House

0

A controversial bill to create a $36 million taxpayer-funded school voucher program failed at the Utah House on Monday.

The measure, HB331, was struck down by a vote of 22 to 53. And there is little chance of a renewal in the few days remaining before the end of the legislative session this week.

Already, the bill had encountered significant obstacles. Many in the education community had rallied behind the measure, saying the measure would hurt public schools and divert even more money from them. Utah Governor Spencer Cox had also promised to veto the legislation if it came to his office.

Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, the sponsor, had made last-minute changes to the measure to try to allay concerns, but that ultimately didn’t change the situation.

“I understand this is a massive policy change,” she said, pleading for support in the House. “I understand that adopting new policies is not an easy thing to do.”

She argued that supporting public education and helping families leave public schools, however, were not mutually exclusive.

The bill would have established the Hope Scholarship Program. The idea was to allow students to take public school funding with them, in the form of a scholarship, when they transfer to private school or home schooling.

The grants were established to be income-based, so families earning less would have received more – sometimes double what a student would traditionally receive in the public system.

Pierucci said she wants to give low-income and middle-class families more education options if public school doesn’t help their child succeed or if their child is bullied there.

Finances, however, raised concerns. Educators feared the amount of money drained from public schools in a state that ranks among the lowest for spending per student.

Pierucci amended the bill to allow a student’s allowance — known as a Weighted Pupil Unit, or WPU — to remain at a school even if that student received a Hope scholarship and left. . But he still took $36 million from the public schools fund.

And even at the highest amount of the scholarship, the money was not enough to fully cover the tuition of many private schools in Utah. The average tuition for most in the state is around $11,000, according to Private School Review. Many go higher than that. Tuition at Waterford and Rowland Hall, two popular private schools in the state, is over $20,000.

Representative Marsha Judkins, R-Provo, argued that there are already planned and paid options in the public school system that parents can choose from to help their child. “We may not be aware of all the choices parents have,” she said.

She indicated that charter schools were the main alternative. But she also noted that the state provides resources for homeschooling and online education. And several private schools, she said, already offer scholarships to low-income families. There are also open registrations between traditional districts.

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, a retired teacher, said he also doesn’t see accountability measures in the bill to ensure private schools provide adequate education.

Private schools are not held to the same standards in Utah. They don’t have to hire licensed teachers. They can enroll students on a preferential basis. And the state cannot establish a curriculum in these schools. Briscoe said sending taxpayers’ money somewhere with little or no transparency would be a bad move.

Pierucci noted that she added a requirement to the bill that students attending private school on the scholarship be tested annually. Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, said he doesn’t think that’s enough. Public schools, he noted, have far more accountability measures to ensure teachers are prepared and students are learning.

“It gives me great pause and great concern,” he said.

Others said there were concerns about how the money could be used, including for therapy programs not currently offered in public schools. One of them said that it did not solve the bullying problems and that she would prefer to see a targeted program for that. Another added that students would receive money who have never been in the public system and whose families have already made the choice to go to a private school.

The measure had been championed by conservative parent groups in the state, who saw it as a way to expand school choice and have all options, including home schooling, funded by the taxpayers’ money. And a handful of Republican lawmakers have defended the bill.

Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, said with the changes to keep WPU in public schools, it doesn’t hurt education but gives parents more choice. And, he said, these are especially needed after the pandemic, where many families have learned what works best for their children (in his family, he said, online learning did not go well).

“Parents are desperate,” added Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, who noted she homeschooled all six of her children.

One lawmaker, Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, suggested making it a tax credit program instead of a scholarship. This idea was also rejected.

Utah already has the Carson Smith Scholarship Program, which is specifically designed to give vouchers to students with special needs.

And the new proposal came despite Republican lawmakers championing a similar measure in 2007 that was ultimately defeated. It passed, even with strong opposition from parents and teachers, but they later rallied to put a referendum on the ballot to overturn the measure.

They won. More than 62% of Utah voters sided with the repeal effort.

Share.

Comments are closed.