Legislation: Vouchers pass a House test
HB148 * Approved by the House on Friday on a 38-37 vote, it would let parents whose children attend public schools use public funds to help pay private school
tuition starting this fall.
* To see how lawmakers voted, visit http://le.utah.gov/~2007/status/hbillsta/hb0148.001h.txt
* Lawmakers want analysis of effect of undocumented immigrants. B1
* Controversy over whirling disease circles Legislature. B6
* More from the Hill at sltrib.com.
School voucher opponents, dejected after the House voted 38-37 Friday in favor of a school voucher bill, predicted supporters will one day regret their votes.
They fully expect HB148 to sail through the Senate and win Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s signature, but rather than calling for a constitutional challenge or a repeal effort, they spoke only of "bad policy" and escalating costs.
"I'm terribly disappointed. I think people sold out from fear of special interest groups," said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, a retired teacher.
If the bill is signed and becomes law, the heavy lifting would fall to the Utah Office of Education, which would have to get the program up and running by summer so parents can use their vouchers by fall.
"It's a huge assignment and [the bill is] very prescriptive," said Carol Lear, attorney for the Utah Office of Education.
Voucher supporters embraced each other in the halls after the vote.
"We've been chewing on this issue for seven years," said Rep. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, who sponsored this year's bill. "We learned from the dialogue, and we have passed something that will be beneficial to some families and it will be beneficial to the system overall."
HB148 would let parents spend public money on private school tuition. Families whose children already attend private schools would be exempt unless they are low-income, but every family with children in public schools would be eligible for vouchers ranging from $500 to $3,000. Public schools would lose some but not all state money for every voucher student who leaves.
"This is not the camel's nose in the tent, this is the whole camel in the tent," Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, said during Friday's debate. "When it comes to funding our schools in Utah, we have a Volkswagen. It works well and it gets us where we want to go. This voucher program is a Cadillac."
Because vouchers would be available to all new kindergartners, even those who already were destined for private schools, in 13 years all private school students could get vouchers. The potential cost escalation of such a program worried Rep. Ronda Menlove, R-Garland.
"I'm very concerned we're starting another program that will grow exponentially," she said during the debate. ''We'll be creating another program that will come back next year saying, 'You're not supporting us enough.' ''
Fiscal analyses have predicted requests for more than $9 million worth of vouchers the first year, more than $12 million the second year and growing costs each year after that.
Supporters of the bill argued that no legislation is irreversible.
"Whatever we do up here, we can undo up here," Rep. Michael Noel, R-Kanab, told his colleagues.
Friday's debate lasted roughly an hour, with eight people speaking for the bill and seven speaking against it. The vote was over in less than a minute, suggesting most members had made up their minds before or during the floor debate.
The debate was orderly and polite, but lobbying that preceded it was intense. Pressure from both fellow representatives and outside groups was especially high on new members viewed as swing votes.
"I'm uncomfortable with the level of pressure that was exerted on certain members," said Rep. Kory Holdaway, R-Taylorsville. The level of arm-twisting exceeded past years and sometimes led to questions about party loyalty, he said.
Surprise supporters of the bill included Rep. Brad Last, R-St. George, and Rep. Keith Grover, R-Orem - two former public school officials who both said they had wrestled with the decision. Last had voted against the bill in the House Education Committee on Tuesday but changed his mind by Friday.
''I know there's a lot who are going to say, 'Man, Brad must have gotten his arm twisted,' '' Last said during the debate. "To those who want to lynch me right now, I say go read the bill. . . . I believe this bill is the right way to implement choice."
The pro-voucher Parents for Choice in Education called the bill's passage a victory for Utah children. "We're thrilled," said Elisa Peterson, executive director of the political action committee, which contributed heavily to several legislative campaigns.
Opponents from the state's largest teachers union said out-of-state money and politics drove the decision more than children's best interests.
"This isn't the way I teach my fifth-graders the system works," said Kim Campbell, Utah Education Association president.
For better or worse, school vouchers are now an issue for the Utah Office of Education, which gets $100,000 a year for voucher oversight staff. By May 15, the office must make rules for determining the income of voucher applicants and establish a paper and online application process. By July 1, they must solicit signed affidavits from schools that want to participate and compile a list of eligible private schools.
Any decision about future constitutional challenges will be up to private parties or the Attorney General's Office, Lear said.
"People just have to let the dust settle and see how we're advised," she said.
* MATT CANHAM and GLEN WARCHOL contributed to this report.