A controversial bill to create a taxpayer-funded, $42 million school voucher program in Utah — the most expansive in state history — was pushed through the House on Friday under suspended rules that allowed lawmakers to approve it without the required wait time.
The Republican-led proposal was approved on a 54-20 vote that came during the final minutes of floor time of the first week of what’s already shaped up to be a fast and wild legislative session.
“This is the beginning of us reinventing public education in Utah,” declared Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, the sponsor of HB215.
The bill sets up what Pierucci has called the “Utah Fits All Scholarship” that would allow students to use public money to attend private schools or be home-schooled. It’s touted as a way to give parents and kids more choice in education.
Pierucci’s proposal also includes an ongoing $6,000 salary and benefits raise for teachers across the state — made contingent on approving the vouchers.
The measure is opposed by the largest teachers union in Utah, which has said educators feel devalued by having their paycheck tied to a voucher program many don’t support and many worry will further hobble Utah’s public schools. Per pupil funding in the state is already among the lowest in the nation, passing only Idaho.
An attempt by Democratic Rep. Angela Romero of Salt Lake City to split the bill into two was voted down Friday by the conservative-majority body. Romero argued that teacher raises shouldn’t be a bargaining chip to pass other policies.
“I think these are two different issues, and they need to be discussed in two different bills,” she said.
Democrats and a few Republicans stood with her, including Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield. He called it “disingenuous” to connect the issues as a way to force support.
But Rep. Douglas Welton, R-Payson, who is a public school teacher, voted in favor of the bill with the raises — even after calling it “one of the biggest bribes.” He said he’d like to see more work done before any final passage of the bill, which will go next to the Senate.
The vote to pass the bill Friday was supported only by Republican lawmakers. All 13 Democrats in the House, along with seven Republicans, voted to oppose. Still, the vote was enough to represent two-thirds of the body. If the bill passes with the same margin in the Senate, it’s secure from both a veto or referendum.
Pierucci has insisted on the two issues of teacher pay and vouchers remaining together as a funding package. She believes it shows that even though the state wants students to be able to explore other education options, it also still supports public school educators; she talked about her own experience growing up attending public schools in Utah.
After the bill passed in committee late Thursday, she made a few changes before it was heard on the House floor Friday morning.
Her amended bill capped the amount allocated each year for the program at $42 million, instead of allowing it to grow with the annual adjustments to the weighted pupil unit amount, or WPU — which has caused problems in other states with similar programs. The WPU here, which is currently set at about $4,000, is what each public school is given by the state for each child enrolled there (not counting additional add-ons for students with disabilities).
But Pierucci didn’t change the amount her scholarship would allocate per student, which has been a source of heartburn. The Utah Fits All Scholarship is an $8,000 award — which is double the WPU set by the state.
Pierucci said she arrived at the figure by combining the roughly $4,000 WPU with the average amount spent by each Utah school district on students, which is about another $4,000. That second portion is collected locally, through property taxes, and is subject to local control and decision making on how to spend it.
Some have argued that isn’t a fair setup and values the scholarship students more than those who elect for public schools. And for every student who leaves a public school to enroll elsewhere, they said, the school no longer gets their WPU and essentially loses funding and state support.
Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, said she doesn’t believe the bill supports low-income families, as Pierucci has argued.
Pierucci says students in households living below the poverty line will be prioritized for the scholarship.
But Hollins said many of those families wouldn’t be able to use it anyway because they don’t have the transportation to go to a private school and wouldn’t be able to pay the difference between the scholarship and private school tuition. The average tuition at a private school in Utah is roughly $11,000 a year.
“It doesn’t give every student equal access,” Hollins said, noting people in her district are choosing between paying for the bus to go to work, buying new shoes and keeping the lights on.
Others said they were worried about sending public dollars to private institutions that have no requirements by the state to hire licensed teachers or to teach a set curriculum. Most of the schools are religious. And there’s no obligation for private schools to help students with disabilities.
“Because it’s public money it should go to public schools,” which are held publicly accountable, said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, a former public school teacher.
The biggest concern raised by the largely Democratic opposition, though, was the rush to vote on the bill. The rules in the House typically require a bill to be on the calendar for 24 hours before a vote, giving lawmakers a chance to read through it before debate. It was only 19 hours after the bill passed in committee that the full House voted on it Friday, after suspending the rules.
The most recent draft with Pierucci’s amendments “was numbered at 10:00 this morning, introduced and debated under suspension of the rules at 11:15, and passed at about 12:30. For no good reason,” wrote Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, on Twitter after the vote.
He added: “Voting by an informed body and public could just as easily have been done Monday morning. #abuseofpower”
Pierucci and others, though, said it was largely the same bill with a few small changes that she’d been working on this week — and had tried to pass last year but failed.
The other changes she made include allowing a student to attend public school part time and then get a partial scholarship to get private tutoring or do home schooling for the remainder.
Rep. Karen Peterson, R-Clinton, said she liked that addition, suggesting it opened up the scholarship to more students living in rural areas that might not have access to a nearby private school (most of those are concentrated on the Wasatch Front).
The other change was what Pierucci is calling an added “accountability measure.” In the original bill, the test scores of students leaving public schools for private schools was not allowed to be tracked. Opponents wanted that provision to be able to study the success of the program.
In the version passed Friday, students on the scholarship have the option to take an assessment at the end of the year or submit a portfolio of their work in school to the scholarship administrator as proof of their education. Peterson believes that will help see if the vouchers “move the needle.” Others said it wasn’t strong enough.
Peterson said the bill supports the Republican values of creating choices and a competitive market for schools. And she likes the “guardrails,” too, for the administrator that will oversee the program.
Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, agreed, adding that in recent years he’s talked to parents with concerns about the books being taught in public schools — which he ran legislation on last year. And he didn’t like that schools required masking at times during the pandemic and feels parents should have a choice outside of that.
Pierucci said her impetus has been the COVID-19 pandemic, which she said proved to her that not all students thrive in public schools.
“The last couple of years,” she said, “have highlighted that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for every child.”