School voucher bill wins narrow approval from Utah lawmakers

Some parents and teachers said they’re concerned that HB331 will drain money from the public school system.

Despite objections that it would hobble Utah’s public schools — already among the least funded in the country — state lawmakers have approved a bill that would allow students to take public school funding with them when they transfer to a private school.

HB331 from Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, sets up what amounts to a school voucher program.

“Regardless of their zip code or income, every kid should have choices to best serve their educational needs,” Pierucci said Tuesday. “This bill is about empowerment, customization and fairness.”

The measure has been championed by conservative parent groups in the state, who see it as a way to expand school choice and have all options, including home schooling, funded by taxpayer dollars. It narrowly passed a House committee Tuesday with a 6-5 vote.

How it would work: Each student in a public K-12 school is counted by the state to award what’s called a weighted pupil unit, or WPU, to a district or charter based on its enrollment.

If 3,000 kids enroll, the school gets the value of 3,000 WPUs (not counting additional add-ons for students with disabilities). The WPU is currently set by the state at about $3,900.

Because WPUs come from the state — funded by taxpayers — they are currently given only to public schools.

But under Pierucci’s bill, if a student chooses to go to a private school or do home schooling instead of their traditional public school, their WPU would now go with them in the form of a scholarship. She calls it the Hope Scholarship Program.

Her idea is to help families be able to afford private school, if that’s better for their child’s learning. The scholarships, or vouchers, would be granted based on a family’s income level.

This is where it gets controversial. Because it is calculated based on income, families who make less would be awarded more money.

A four-person household, for instance, making up to $53,000 combined per year — or those considered at or below 200% of the poverty level — would get a scholarship that is worth two times the set WPU. That’s roughly $7,800 per child, or double what the student would be designated in the public school system.

And that money is taken from the public school fund, which some fear would be drained and leave little left for those who stay in traditional schools.

“Let’s fix our public education system and stop diverting the public funds away from it,” said one mom, Cissy Rasmussen, during the committee hearing.

Additionally, even at that highest scholarship amount, the money is not enough to completely cover tuition for many private schools in Utah. The average tuition for most in the state is roughly $11,000, according to Private School Review. Any many go higher than that. Tuition at both Waterford and Rowland Hall, two popular private schools in the state, are both more than $20,000.

The vouchers decrease from there based on income. The same household of four making $147,000 per year, for instance, would get about $3,800 per child, just slightly less than the WPU.

The money from the scholarship could go toward private school tuition, the cost of private tutoring or home schooling. If it is used for home school, the bill specifies it can’t be used to pay the parent for educating their children. It is to go, instead, toward textbooks or other curriculum. Pierucci believes the majority of the scholarships will be for that.

The bill calls for $36 million for the program.

Supporters say it’s about choice

Pierucci says the vouchers are needed to give parents more choice and a way for everyone to afford those choices. Some students, she noted, perform great in public schools and charters. Others, she said, do better in private schools. And the state, she believes, should support them all.

“The last few years have shown that a one-size approach really hasn’t worked for every child,” she said.

When schools were disrupted by the pandemic, she noted, some wealthy parents were able to pull their kids out and transfer them wherever they wanted. But others didn’t have the means and were stuck with districts whose teaching methods or decisions they didn’t agree with.

Others moved the opposite direction. Liliana Gonzalez said her three kids were attending private school — and loving it — at St. Francis Xavier Catholic School in Kearns until the family ran out of money.

When they could no longer afford the tuition, Gonzalez transferred them to public school. And it hasn’t been a good experience, she said.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Liliana Gonzalez speaks in favor of HB331 during a meeting of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee at the Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.

She believes her kids haven’t been learning as much and haven’t gotten as much attention from teachers. She also said they don’t feel as safe or like they belong.

“I wish we could afford private school,” she said in support of the bill. “I would be so happy to take my kids back to private school for the education and values.”

Under the proposal, families like the Gonzalezes would get funding to do so. The scholarships would be managed by a private granting organization contracted by the state and overseen by the Utah State Board of Education. Periodic inspections would be performed by Utah’s auditor.

That is similar to how the state’s current Carson Smith Scholarship Program works, which is tailored specifically to give vouchers to students with special needs. And the Hope Scholarship is modeled after other states with voucher programs, including Louisiana, Milwaukee and Ohio.

Many parents who spoke at the committee meeting said they supported the idea. Some said they worried about bullying in public schools and class sizes that are too large. One mom said her son is gifted, and the public school system can’t keep up with him.

“Private schools can give kids some opportunities that the public schools can’t,” added dad Percy Pearson.

Another mom said she has six kids: three are in traditional public schools, two are in charters and one is in private. “They all learn differently,” she said.

The program, if approved, would start here in fall 2023.

Opponents argue it hurts public schools

But the bill has drawn pushback from some who say it’s a way to undermine public schools and set them up to fail.

At the committee hearing, 40 people spoke during the comment period, which switched back and forth between those in favor of the bill and those opposed. The feedback lasted for more than an hour.

Steve Phelps, a father, said he’s studied voucher programs in other states and found “they simply don’t work.”

In Louisiana, he said, students in the voucher program saw their math scores drop; a study published last year confirms that. In Milwaukee’s program, students who participated were more likely to graduate high school than those in the public system. But the state ranked near the bottom of all states in math scores, which worsened since the launch of the subsidies.

The Utah State Board of Education has voted, as a body, to oppose the measure. Deputy Superintendent Angie Stallings said the board believes there are already choices for parents to personalize education to their child’s needs, including charter schools, open enrollment between districts and online options. And those are all covered with the standard WPU — not the doubled amount that private schools could get with some scholarships.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Angie Stallings, deputy superintendent for policy at the State Board of Education, speaks in opposition to HB331 during a meeting of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee at the Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.

She also noted that she believes the bill could be violating state law, which forbids public education dollars from going to private religious institutions (such as church-owned private schools). “This is about equity and accountability,” Stallings said.

Both teachers union in the state, the Utah Education Association and the Utah branch of the American Federation of Teachers, spoke out against the measure, as well.

“It sends our hard-earned taxpayer dollars to wealthy, elite private schools,” said UEA President Heidi Matthews.

And those private schools are not held to the same standards, added AFT Vice President Rita Heagren. They don’t have to hire licensed teachers. They can enroll students on a preferential basis, allowing for possible discrimination. In fact, parents signing their kids up there have to sign a waiver relinquishing their rights to sue if they have a disability discrimination claim, which is noted in the bill.

And the state cannot set curriculum in those schools, Heagren said, so they can teach whatever they want without regulation.

“These private schools may use our taxpayer dollars to indoctrinate our children with zero oversight of what’s being taught,” she noted, adding that she feels that should be of concern to lawmakers who have fought this session to have more say in school lesson plans.

Other parents questioned again the cost, with the scholarships not covering the full tuition at many schools and asking whether it was really leveling the playing field for low-income households. One mom said the same programs aren’t available in rural areas, so choice is already limited.

Most said they were concerned with funding being pulled out of already stressed public schools, instead of investing to make those better.

“This only hurts our public schools,” said former teacher Terra Cooper, a mother of three kids in Davis School District. “Public schools are the reasonable and affordable option for most of our children.”

What’s next

The voucher proposal comes despite Republican lawmakers championing a similar proposal in 2007 that was eventually defeated. It passed, even with strong opposition from parents and teachers, but they then rallied to put a referendum on the ballot to rescind the measure.

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

Some of those opposed Tuesday mentioned that. Pierucci said she believes things are different now, though, more than 14 years later.

She quoted a recent poll from Dan Jones & Associates that was released by House leadership. That showed that 69% of those surveyed supported using taxpayer dollars for a student’s private school education. The Legislature has not, however, released details on the poll’s methodology.

The three Democrats in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee voted against the proposal. Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, said it felt like adding another burden on teachers after what they’ve dealt with during the pandemic. He said he worried they’d see it as “another sign that they feel that their government doesn’t support them.”

The Democrats were joined by two Republicans in the 6-5 vote, Reps. Stewart Barlow and Douglas Sagers. HB331 goes next to a vote before the full House.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) People listen to a meeting of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee at the Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.