In a significant move, the state school board voted early Monday to stand against the voucher bill currently rushing through the Utah Legislature that would allow students to use public funding to attend private schools.
The state’s top elected education leaders on the Utah State Board of Education now join a growing list of stakeholders who have announced their opposition to the controversial measure — including the largest teachers union in the state and the Utah PTA.
“Overwhelmingly, the education community has spoken out against this bill,” said Sarah Reale, a newly elected Democratic member of the board and educator at Salt Lake Community College. “It just simply isn’t good governing.”
The board, which oversees all of public K-12 education in the state, voted 10-5 in a bipartisan tally to oppose HB215. The position came in an emergency meeting held shortly ahead of the scheduled Senate Education Committee hearing for the bill, where it was later passed on a 7-2 vote.
Reale and Carol Lear, the two Democrats on the 15-member board, were joined by eight Republicans who also voted to not support the measure. The remaining five Republicans — James Moss, Matt Hymas, Joseph Kerry, Emily Green and Jennie Earl — were in favor of the bill or of the board taking a neutral position on it.
“This bill cannot be amended into good policy,” noted member Christina Boggess, a Republican who was also elected this November.
The board’s majority opinion was sent in a statement to all state lawmakers Monday.
HB215 looks to create a $42 million program called the “Utah Fits All Scholarship” that would allow students to use public money to attend private schools or be home-schooled. It is touted as a way to give parents and kids more choice in education.
The proposal from Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, also includes an ongoing $6,000 salary and benefits raise for teachers across the state — made contingent on approving the vouchers.
Concerns from the state board
Members of the state school board repeated many of the concerns that have been expressed by educators about the bill, including that teachers feel devalued by having their paycheck tied to a voucher program many don’t support and that many worry will further hobble Utah’s public schools.
Kristan Norton, a Republican board member who is also a teacher of 25 years, said the raise being proposed is “something I’ve never seen in my lifetime.” But, she added, she cannot support the bill in good conscience when she sees it as “siphoning $42 million off of public education to put into private businesses.”
She also is concerned that it only offers choices to those in the Wasatch Front, where most of the private schools in the state sit. Those in rural areas, like her district in southern Utah, have fewer options.
Others on the board said they were worried about the lack of accountability for public taxpayer money in the program. In Utah, private schools don’t have to hire licensed teachers, don’t have any requirements for curriculum and can handpick which students they admit.
“Taxpayers deserve information,” said Lear, who called herself the “matriarch of anti-vouchers.”
Natalie Cline, an outspoken Republican on the board, also stood opposed. She said HB215 is “not the proper role of government.”
Several members expressed frustration, too, that the board and other education officials have been left out of conversations about the bill, have not been consulted or asked to collaborate on the measure. And they feel it is being rushed through the Legislature to avoid that.
The bill was passed through the Utah House on Friday after lawmakers suspended the rules for the required wait time to vote on a proposal. Most of the conservative voices in the body have voiced support for HB215.
“This has been purposefully fast-tracked while holding our educator pay hostage,” said Reale.
Another member called the lack of consultation with the board “a personal affront.”
Cindy Davis, a conservative member, said she has more questions about the bill than answers at this point — including how it will be managed and how it will function transparently.
She also believes the funding is unfair. Currently, the state allocates about $4,000 per student in a public school under the weighted pupil unit, or WPU (not counting additional add-ons for students with disabilities). The voucher bill would give students an $8,000 scholarship to attend a private school or do home schooling.
Davis said rather than doubling the money students get from the state to leave public school, more can be invested in the choices that already exist — which includes open enrollment, allowing families to move freely between districts and charters.
What about those in favor?
But others on the board said there needs to be more innovation in education. Hymas, a Republican member of the board who is the high school director at the charter American Preparatory Academy’s West Valley City Campus II, said he sees the board only supporting innovation in name and not practice.
“I see this as an attempt to give back and innovate and try new things,” he said.
Moss, the chair of the board, said he wants to support parents, who have largely spoken in favor of HB215. Four parents spoke in favor of the bill during the board’s public comment period Monday.
“We need to put the children first and everything else second,” said one mom from Ogden.
“My kids deserve to have a choice,” added Joe Johnson, a father.
Last week, the state school board compiled a list of questions and gave that to the bill’s sponsors. The board said the vote Tuesday is for how the bill is currently written, and members may vote again if HB215 is amended.
Other efforts to oppose the bill
Teachers and parents across the state have also started a petition to oppose the voucher program. As of Monday afternoon, it had more than 600 signatures.
The group, Utah Parents Involved in Education, launched a billboard campaign, as well. Those read: “Public money is for public schools. Vote no on HB215.”
And Better Utah, a left-leaning organization in the state, launched a campaign calling Pierucci and Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, and the Senate sponsor, “Public Education Enemy #1.” The group has sent 20,000 text messages to constituents of Cullimore and Pierucci.
Better Utah points to a similar bill from Pierucci that was run last year and failed. Nothing this year, the organization says, has largely changed in the proposal but it is being fast-tracked for approval anyway.