Utah voucher lobbyist apologizes for saying she wanted to ‘destroy public education’

Allison Sorensen says her remarks, captured in a recording shared online, were “thoughtless and inappropriate.” She has been working to support HB215.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) More than 800 students gathered at the Utah Capitol for Charter School Day, on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. Education has been a hot topic this year with at voucher bill aimed at allowing public school students to use public funding to go to private schools. And one lobbyist supporting the measure has apologized after she was recorded saying she wanted to "destroy public education."

A prominent Utah lobbyist is apologizing after her comment about wanting to “destroy public education” with vouchers was shared in a recording online.

Allison Sorensen, the executive director of Education Opportunity for Every Child, a school choice nonprofit, confirmed to The Salt Lake Tribune in a statement Monday that she made the remarks and regrets it.

“I apologize for my thoughtless and inappropriate comments,” she wrote. “I should not have made them. My remarks as an individual should not be interpreted to represent any organization, the Legislature, or the tens of thousands of Utahns who are asking for more education opportunities for their families and communities.”

An audio recording of Sorensen was shared widely online over the weekend by Lisa Logan, a member of the conservative group Utah Parents United, who posted a clip in a tweet.

Sorensen, a mother of five, is a longtime pro-voucher advocate who has also been serving as the marketing director for a campaign supporting “Utah Fits All.” That’s the name of the voucher program being proposed in HB215, which would allocate $42 million in taxpayer funding for students to attend private school or be home-schooled.

But the bill sponsor, Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, told The Tribune earlier this week she wasn’t sure who was running the campaign, which includes a customized website, social media pages and branded T-shirts.

“I did not hire nor work with anyone to have a page created about the bill,” she added Tuesday. “We have no way of preventing someone from starting a web page in support of or against any of the bills we run. "

It appears Sorensen is part of the campaign. But it’s not clear who else is involved and if that includes her larger Education Opportunity for Every Child organization.

“Like any other mom, I want every child in Utah to have access to an education that helps them thrive,” Sorensen said in her apology.

In the recording, Sorensen talks about HB215. Logan said on Twitter that the audio came from a training session about the scholarship, but didn’t offer details on when that took place, who ran it or who captured the recording. Logan didn’t respond Monday to an email request for comment.

Sorensen declined to answer follow-up questions from The Tribune after her statement, saying she had “no further comment.”

In the nearly two-minute audio clip — which Logan said is part of a 15-minute recording that was too long to post online — Sorensen can be heard talking to a few people about HB215. She starts by saying she wants to win with the bill.

“I have a chance to win this year because there’s been a grand compromise, and I have whipped some butts,” she says. “… You give those damn parents their rights.”

Sorensen notes how the proposal was coupled with a $6,000 salary and benefit raise for teachers in the bill, to make the increase contingent on passing vouchers. But she argues that she’ll hear complaints no matter what.

“Even though I’m giving them a pay raise,” she says, “they’re still going to put a gun to your head and take your taxes.”

She goes on to clarify that she thinks teachers will ask for an income tax hike to collect more money for education. If high demand for vouchers eventually does require significantly more money, she said, “then we will change the way education is funded.”

At that point, she said: “Then let’s actually take the money out of the public school system. Stop putting a line item” for vouchers.

The proposed line item means that students awarded a Utah Fits All Scholarship would be paid out of money set aside for that purpose. In other voucher programs, the funding a student is allocated from the state — known as the weighted pupil unit — is instead directly pulled out of their public school when they transfer to a private school.

That was the proposal in last year’s voucher proposal from Pierucci that failed. But Sorensen suggests in the audio that may be the better approach, with increased future demand. “We’ll change the way we fund the program so that it literally is pulling that money straight from the schools,” meaning the state education budget as a whole, she says.

She then talks about how Utah lawmakers are trying to frame the voucher bill. Last year, it was called the “Hope Scholarship.”

“The Legislature felt like ‘hope’ meant that there was no hope in the public school system, and they want their talking points,” she says. “They can’t say that this is a recall to public education system.”

Then Sorensen says that’s what it is.

“I can’t say this is a recall of public education, even though I want to destroy public education. I can’t say that. The Legislature can’t say that because they’ll be just scraped over the coals. "

She calls that the “stupid reality” of the measure and talks about how it had to be “rebranded.”

The statements immediately caught fire with education stakeholders, who have been opposed to the voucher program and the measure being fast-tracked to pass through in the first days of the legislative session. They point to the audio as proof that the measure is designed to undermine the public school system.

Teachers commented on the video calling it “concerning” and suggesting it was “the quiet part said out loud” about the bill.

“This bill was horrible to begin with,” one wrote, “now it’s poisoned. Get rid of it and work with people who want to work in good faith.”

Better Utah, a left-leaning policy organization in the state, released a full transcript of the leaked comments. And Chase Thomas, the senior policy advisor for the group, added in a statement:

“Utah’s politicians should be transparent with Utah parents. HB215, as outlined by Allison Sorensen, takes money out of public schools and is only a first step in undermining our public education system. We call on lawmakers to do everything they can to strengthen our schools, support our teachers, and prepare our children for the future, not destroy public education.”

Though leaders of Utah Parents United have voiced support for the voucher program, Logan, who originally posted the audio, questioned Sorensen’s message and the direction of the bill. She asked: “Is it really the goal of the Utah legislature to recall & destroy public education? Because that’s what the head of the Utah Fits All marketing campaign is telling parents. Since 600K+ students use that system, I think your constituents deserve answers.”

Other were also quick to distance themselves from the comments.

Pierucci told The Tribune in a statement that Sorensen’s remarks were “misguided and inaccurate” and “in no way reflects my opinion, or the opinions of the many legislators, teachers, parents, grassroots organizations, and citizens who support HB 215.”

She added: “I believe in our public education system and am committed to continuing to invest and support our teachers and students.”

During a Senate Education Committee hearing for the bill Monday afternoon, Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, brought up the audio and said it wasn’t how he or his colleagues thought of the voucher proposal.

“I have never once heard a comment like that from any of my colleagues on Capitol Hill,” he said.

He later told KUTV 2News that he thought Sorensen should resign from her position over the remarks.

Sorensen’s social media pages have been quiet since the audio was posted. Her last tweet was in support of the Utah Fits All Scholarship from December.

She also posted a video on Facebook that month, on the Education Opportunity for Every Child page, saying she heard that Gov. Spencer Cox would support the voucher proposal if it included teacher raises. It was posted the day after Cox announced his budget suggestion for educator salary increases.

“We are going to get teacher pay increased and school choice for all students,” Sorensen squeals. “We are stoked and so excited.”

She then holds up a water bottle with a Utah Fits All sticker on it and advises viewers to sign up for alerts at UtahFitsAll.com.

“We will officially launch Dec. 26,” she says.