Quick-moving and controversial: Utah’s voucher bill wins committee support and heads next to full Senate

The Senate will likely take up the issue this week. It appears poised to pass the body in a final vote.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) People give a thumbs up sign as they agree with one of the speakers during the Senate Education Committee public comments about HB215, on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023.

Utah’s fast-moving school voucher bill passed through a second committee Monday afternoon — the last step before it goes to the full Senate for a final vote.

The controversial bill already gained the favor of the House last week, just four days into the legislative session. Despite heavy opposition from many teachers and education stakeholders, HB215 has been buoyed by Utah’s dominant conservative lawmakers and pushed to move quickly, including through efforts to suspend the rules on voting wait times and handpicking the measure to put at the front of committee agendas.

“Above all, we support students and want them to succeed,” explained Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden, who chairs the Senate Education Committee and controls the list of bills that are heard. He put only HB215 on the schedule for Monday’s meeting.

The bill would create a $42 million fund from taxpayer money called the “Utah Fits All Scholarship” to send students to private school or be home-schooled. It got a 7-2 vote from the committee, with the lone Democrat, Sen. Kathleen Riebe, joined by Republican Sen. David Hinkins in opposition.

It would also set up an ongoing $6,000 salary and benefits increase for teachers, which is contingent on supporting the vouchers.

Riebe raised several questions and concerns about the bill that echoed previous debates and statements. She worries it is not a transparent use of public funds when private schools are not required to follow a curriculum or test students to see if they are succeeding. She also said it is disingenuous to tie it to teacher raises.

The senator attempted to have the bill tabled, meaning it wouldn’t have been voted on, to allow time for education officials to work with the sponsor, Republican Rep. Candice Pierucci, to discuss issues and fixes.

“I think there’s a lot to be hammered out on this bill,” said Riebe, who works as a technology specialist at Granite School District. “Until you tell me what we cannot do in public education and why, I think we should not be funding other schools with no transparency and more red tape.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigit Gerrard, president of the Utah School Boards Association speaks at a public education rally at the Capitol, on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023.

But her suggestion was voted down.

The board heard from 34 people during the public comment period, with 17 for and 17 against HB215, including some who had previously spoken at the House Education Committee hearing. Those who stood with Riebe said rural students would be disadvantaged and that the current education system in the state is not broken — it is underfunded.

Representatives from the Utah PTA, Utah State Board of Education and Utah Education Association all repeated their opposition, including that students on the scholarship would be given $8,000, which is twice what the state currently designates per child in public schools.

“HB215 is not an investment in Utah’s children but a down-payment on the privatization of education,” said Sara Jones, the government relations director for the statewide teachers union.

Others brought up that the 2007 voucher program in Utah was struck down by voters in a referendum. Lynda Simmons said that shows it’s not what residents want. “Taxpayer money is going to private companies, and that bothers me,” she noted.

Jennifer Graviet, a public educator for 28 years, said it is “antithetical to the promise of public education.” She said it’s hard to speak against the bill, with the tie to a salary increase, but said she cares more about not having a voucher program than getting a raise.

One mother, Aimee Warren, talked about her two daughters excelling in math and science. She said the system, with open enrollment, already allows for choice and she found a STEM-focused school for them to attend.

It was clear to see who in the room opposed the bill with many wearing red, as part of the “Red for Ed” campaign for public education. More than 200 people rallied against the bill later in the evening, in a red mass in the Capitol.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students and teachers gather for a public education rally at the Capitol, on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023.

Those who support HB215 were wearing “Utah Fits All” T-shirts. And they gave a thumbs up sign when they supported a speaker.

Pierucci described the funding for the bill as roughly 1% of what the state spent on public education last year, at $4.7 billion. Roughly 95% of the 700,000 school-age kids in the state attend public K-12 districts and charters.

Still, she added, the bill is meant to “empower parents with more options for their child’s educational learning experience.” If a kid isn’t learning well in a public school or is being bullied, they should be able to find a better fit, she said.

Several students and parents shared personal experiences reflecting that. Laura Feller said she enrolled her son in a public school for first grade about eight years ago. She said he had a learning disability that the school staff didn’t understand. She pulled him out to do home-schooling, she said, and it worked much better.

“A scholarship fund like this would have been a life raft” at that time, she said.

Chloe Ludlum, a teenager, said she has been home-schooled since she was 4 years old. It’s where, she said, she developed her love of reading. And her mom, she added, has patiently helped her to learn science and math.

“Each kid is different. Some kids may thrive in the public school system. Others may not,” she said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students and teachers gather for a public education rally at the Capitol, on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023.

Others said low-income students, students of color or students with disabilities might be overlooked and not get the help they need in public schools. “I’m tired of feeling like we’re left out,” said Marcus Carr, who is Black.

Mike Lambson, a principal at Mount Vernon, a private school in Murray, said his institution has helped students who would not have succeeded in public school and believes many would have dropped out without another option. Emily Niehaus, who started a micro-school in Moab, said they have “relieved” the public school system of kids that were deemed “troubled” there.

The Utah Taxpayers Association also spoke in support.

The lawmakers who debated the bill said it wasn’t perfect yet, but wanted to move it forward. Tweaks, they said, could still be made before it goes before the Senate. But that vote is expected sometime this week.