Utah State Board of Education votes to oppose school voucher bill

Jan 23, 2023, 9:57 AM | Updated: 1:04 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Board of Education has voted to oppose the controversial school voucher bill making its way through the Utah Legislature.

The board voted 10-5 on Monday to oppose HB215 as it is currently written.

“Some of the issues raised by board members include a lack of student data privacy, questions about program oversight, and the process of drafting and debating the bill,” the board said in a statement. “Many members of the board also recognized frustration from educators and schools for not separating educator salary increases from the scholarship program.”

HB215, sponsored by Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, would give teachers about a $6,000 raise. Pierucci explained during Thursday’s House Education Committee hearing that about $4,200 of that would come in the form of a salary increase, and around $1,800 in benefits.

The vouchers would be part of a Utah Fits All Scholarship Program, where a parent or guardian could apply for an $8,000 scholarship for their child to cover things like textbooks, education software or private school tuition.

The Deseret News reported that some people who testified in favor of the bill said the scholarships would enable them to find resources outside the public school system to better meet their children’s needs.

Others said there would be no accountability for the $42.5 million appropriation, which could serve about 5,000 students.

With pros and cons on both sides, some board members argued there are more questions than answers to support HB215 moving forward in its current state.

Supporters said the bill gives Utah families more options for a customizable education to keep up with changing student needs.

Some board members who are against the bill voiced frustration that teacher pay would be tied to the voucher program. They were also opposed to how the $8,000 scholarships would be distributed.

Some said it could open a door to marginalize students in sorting who does and does not have the means to succeed.

“I believe everybody wants the best bill that there can be for the students of Utah and the families of Utah. We certainly want a bill we can implement and do our part in rules making and the various ways the legislature envisions the USBE’s role,” said Molly Hart, vice chair of the USBOE.

The Utah Education Association also voiced its opposition to HB215, saying the teacher raises and voucher program parts of the bill should be separated and debated on their own merits.

“The UEA has a long-standing position that any voucher or tuition tax credit, slash tax scholarship plan under which private education is subsidized with public tax dollars could weaken the public school system,” said UEA President Renée Pinkney.

The bill passed the House with a veto-proof vote of 54-20 on Friday. It now moves to the Senate, where it will be debated in the Senate Education Committee on Monday at 2 p.m.

If the committee approves HB215, it will move to the Senate floor to be voted on. The House would have to approve any changes made by the Senate before it would head to Gov. Spencer Cox’s desk.

Last year, Cox said he would have vetoed the “Hope Scholarship” school voucher bill if it made its way to his desk.

The governor said he will support vouchers at some point but denied to support the 2022 bill because Utah’s schools are underfunded.

“You can’t take money that could go to our schools and allow it to go to private schools when you’re not fully funding the education system in our state,” Cox said during his PBS Utah news conference in February 2022.

Cox said Utah first needed to focus on paying teachers more, especially with inflation and the increasing cost of housing.

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Utah State Board of Education votes to oppose school voucher bill