Gov. Spencer Cox signed two hotly debated bills Saturday: one that will create the largest school voucher program in state history, and another that will ban most gender-affirming health care for transgender youth.
The controversial measures, which have drawn protest and debate since they were introduced, are the first two bills Cox has signed this legislative session, his office said.
In signing the SB16 ban into law, Cox acknowledged it raised a “terribly divisive issue,” but said “experts, states and countries around the world are pausing these permanent and life-altering treatments,” awaiting new research. He also pledged to push for more resources for organizations that support transgender youth.
“While we understand our words will be of little comfort to those who disagree with us,” he said in a statement released Saturday, “we sincerely hope that we can treat our transgender families with more love and respect as we work to better understand the science and consequences behind these procedures.”
He also said HB215, which sets aside $42 million in taxpayer funds to help families pay tuition at private schools, “strikes a good balance.” The program will give Utah parents “additional options to meet the needs of their families,” he said.
Cox praised “teachers and education leaders who helped push for more accountability measures which were not included in the original bill,” and thanked lawmakers for the teacher pay increases that are included in it.
Here’s what the measures will do.
Transgender medical treatment and procedures
SB16 was sponsored by Sen. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, and it bars doctors from prescribing hormone therapy for minors who have been diagnosed with “gender dysphoria,” a medical diagnosis of mental distress caused by a conflict between a person’s gender identity and the gender they were assigned at birth.
With the ban in place, the bill said, the Utah Department of Health and Human Services will look at data surrounding the use of those medical treatments and make recommendations for policy changes to lawmakers. It does not set a deadline for the completion of that analysis.
The Utah Senate passed the bill in a 20-8 vote on Friday. Any veto would have likely been overridden by lawmakers, as the bill passed with more than two-thirds support in the House and Senate.
Cox last year vetoed a bill that that would bar transgender girls from participating in school sports matching their gender identities. At the time, Cox wrote an emotional four-page letter to lawmakers explaining his veto, writing that only four transgender children were playing high school sports in Utah out of 75,000 student-athletes in total.
“Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few,” Cox wrote in the letter. “I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live. And all the research shows that even a little acceptance and connection can reduce suicidality significantly.”
Last year’s bill originally created a commission charged with evaluating whether a transgender athlete could participate in a school sport. It was amended to ban transgender girls from female sports on the last day of the session, and Cox’s veto was later overridden by the Utah Legislature in a late March special session.
This year’s bill was signed into law just nine days into the legislative session.
The ban on hormone treatments for transgender youth only applies to new patients, and went into effect immediately when Cox signed the bill.
HB215 was sponsored by Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, and allocates $42 million in taxpayer funds to send students to private schools. The bill also includes a $6,000 salary and benefits raise for teachers across the state as a bargaining chip, so educators in public schools will see bigger paychecks starting this fall.
Vouchers can be labeled as tax credits, tax rebates, education savings accounts, backpack funding, or, like in this proposal, scholarships. They’re all the same concept — and they work by taking money collected from taxpayers and setting it aside in a fund for vouchers.
That money is then awarded to individual students, who use it to cover all or part of their attendance at a private school. This creates a funding dilemma for public schools, since if kids leave public schools for private schools, public schools get less funding. Last year, Cox opposed a similar bill.
“Our top priority this session has been a significant increase in teacher compensation and education funding,” Cox said in his statement. “... School choice works best when we adequately fund public education and we remove unnecessary regulations that burden our public schools and make it difficult for them to succeed.”
The controversial proposal has been pushed forward with startling speed — and despite outcry and opposition from teachers and nearly every education organization in Utah. The Utah Education Association promised in a statement Thursday that they would explore “every option available to overturn this damaging legislation that jeopardizes the future of public education.”
“It’s a feeling of defeat... that our leaders, our legislators, and legislative leadership in particular do not care for their constituents. And they do not listen to their constituents, they listen to lobbyists,” said Chera Fernelius, a Davis County teacher and mother of three public school students. Fernelius attended a rally for public education at the Capitol building just hours after Cox signed HB215.
“I think that public schools are going to become even more chronically underfunded than they already are,” Fernelius continued. “I worry where those those vouchers are going. Are they going to schools that are going to be held accountable for actually educating children? And I worry about the children that I teach — I teach in a school where an $8,000 voucher is not going to get them anywhere.”
The Legislature will have a chance to change or reconsider the bill in its session next year, which will come before the scholarships start in fall 2024, but teacher salary increases will come in fall 2023.