$36 million school voucher bill fails in Utah House

With a 22-53 vote, the controversial measure from Rep. Candice Pierucci was defeated.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Candice Pierucci makes a comment on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022. Her school voucher bill, HB331, failed on Feb. 28, 2022, in the Utah House.

A controversial bill to create a taxpayer-funded, $36 million school voucher program failed by a weighty margin in the Utah House on Monday.

The measure, HB331, was struck down by a 22-53 vote. And there is little likelihood of a revival in the few days left before the end of the legislative session this week.

Already, the bill had faced significant obstacles. Many in the education community had rallied against it, saying the measure would harm public schools and siphon even more money away from them. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox had also promised to veto the legislation if it came to his desk.

Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, the sponsor, had made last minute changes to the measure to try to assuage concerns, but it ultimately did not change the tide.

“I understand this is a massive policy change,” she said, pleading for support on the House floor. “I understand enacting new policies is not an easy thing to do.”

She argued that supporting public education and giving families help to leave public schools, though, were not mutually exclusive.

The bill would have established the Hope Scholarship Program. The idea was to allow students to take public school funding with them, in the form of a scholarship, when they transfer to a private school or home schooling.

The scholarships were set up to be income-based, so families making less money would have been awarded more — sometimes double what a student would traditionally be allocated in the public system.

Pierucci said she wanted to give low-income and middle-class families more education options if public school wasn’t helping their child succeed or if their child was being bullied there.

The finances, though, caused concerns. Educators feared the amount of money being drained from public schools in a state that ranks among the lowest for spending per pupil.

Pierucci amended the bill to allow a student’s allocation — known as a weighted pupil unit, or WPU — to remain with a school even if that student was given a Hope Scholarship and left. But it still took $36 million from the public school fund.

And even at the highest scholarship amount, the money was 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.

Rep. Marsha Judkins, R-Provo, argued that there are already options provided for and paid for in the public school system that parents can choose from to help their kid. “We might not be aware of all the choices that parents have,” she said.

She pointed to charter schools as the primary alternative. But she also noted that the state provides resources for home-schooling and online schooling. And several private schools, she said, already offer scholarships for low-income families. There is also open enrollment between traditional districts.

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, a retired teacher, said he also did not see any accountability measures in the bill to make sure private schools were providing an adequate education.

Private schools are not held to the same standards in Utah. They don’t have to hire licensed teachers. They can enroll students on a preferential basis. And the state cannot set curriculum in those schools. Briscoe said sending taxpayer money to a place with little to no transparency would be a poor decision.

Pierucci noted that she added a requirement to the bill for students who go to private school under the scholarship to be tested annually. Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, said he did not feel like that was enough. Public schools, he noted, have far more accountability measures to make sure teachers are prepared and students are learning.

“It gives me great pause and great concern,” he said.

Other said there were worries about how the money could be used, including for therapy programs not currently provided in public schools. One said it didn’t actually fix the problems with bullying, and she would rather see a targeted program for that. Another added that students would get money who have never been in the public system and whose families have already made the choice to go to a private school.

The measure had been championed by conservative parent groups in the state, who saw it as a way to expand school choice and have all options, including home schooling, funded by taxpayer dollars. And a handful of Republican lawmakers defended the bill.

Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, said with the changes to keep the WPU in public schools, it wasn’t harming education but giving parents more choices. And, he said, those are especially needed after the pandemic, where many families learned what worked best for their kids (in his family, he said, online learning didn’t go well).

“Parents are desperate,” added Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, who noted she home-schooled her six kids.

One lawmaker, Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, suggested making it a tax credit program instead of a scholarship. That idea was also defeated.

Utah already has the Carson Smith Scholarship Program, which is tailored specifically to give vouchers to students with special needs.

And the new proposal came despite Republican lawmakers championing a similar measure 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.