The state school board voted Friday to officially oppose a tuition tax credit bill intended to help students attend private schools.
The board voted 8-6 to not lend support to Sen. Howard Stephenson’s SB151. The bill would allow donors to receive tax credits for giving money to scholarship organizations. Those organizations would then award scholarships to students to help them attend private schools. To qualify, students would have to score below expected or proficient on certain tests, attend schools that had received a grade of F for two years in a row under the state’s new grading system, or come from families that make less than a certain amount of money.
Some have called the proposal another school voucher bill, although Stephenson says it isn’t. And Stephenson, R-Draper, said Friday that he was encouraged by the board’s 8-6 split.
“I’m pleased that they were that closely divided because it shows that this is something that may have merit,” Stephenson said. “Typically on these kinds of things the state school board has been overwhelmingly opposed, but this is very different from anything Utah has seen to date as far as the tuition scholarship goes, except for the Carson Smith [program], which is for special needs students.”
School board members and state education officials voiced a number of concerns with the bill Friday.
State Superintendent Larry Shumway said the income limit ($82,696 for a family of four, for example) seems like an “excessively high definition of poverty.” and that giving contributors tax credits instead of deductions doesn’t seem like a true charitable donation.
Board member Dixie Allen said she doesn’t think the bill would truly help students, as many who qualify may come from rural, isolated areas where there are no private schools. They might be doing so poorly academically or have special needs that make private schools unwilling to accept them.
Others opposed the entire principle behind the idea. “I believe public funding is meant for public education,” said board member Leslie Castle, “and no matter how you switch that around, no matter what game you play, public money should go for public schools.”
Six board members, however, voted against the motion to oppose the bill, with several saying they want to talk with Stephenson to get more information before taking a position.
When contacted Friday after the vote, Stephenson said he’s open to lowering the income guidelines and “open to many of the concerns expressed by the school board, and I will be working with them to see if there are areas of compromise that would win more votes than just the six that voted for it.”
He said the program, on the whole, would empower parents of low-performing students to find alternatives for their kids. And it would help teachers reach other students more effectively because they would not have to spend so much time focusing on struggling students after those kids leave for private schools. He said his bill is modeled after a similar program in Arizona, which has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lawmakers have not yet discussed the bill, but it has been assigned to a standing committee for a future hearing.