Controversial Utah voucher bill passes final vote. What’s next?

Despite opposition from teachers, HB215 has passed through the Senate and moves next to the governor for a signature.

Just 10 days into the legislative session, Utah lawmakers have given their final approval to a $42 million bill that will create the largest school voucher program in state history.

Moments later, the largest teachers union in the state announced plans to challenge it.

The Utah Education Association promises to explore “every option available to overturn this damaging legislation that jeopardizes the future of public education,” the organization wrote in a statement Thursday.

The controversial proposal has been pushed forward with startling speed — and despite outcry and opposition from teachers and nearly every education organization in Utah. But because the measure collected a two-thirds majority of votes when passing both the House and the Senate — which occurs any time that most of the state’s GOP-dominant lawmaking bodies support a measure — Utah law states that voters cannot launch a recall effort on the bill.

That occurred previously in Utah, after lawmakers passed a voucher program in 2007. Residents rallied to put a referendum on the ballot to rescind the measure, and they won; more than 62% of Utah voters sided with the repeal effort.

The UEA acknowledged that while a recall is not on the table this time, it will look at other means to fight HB215 as it starts to be implemented, beginning with the state school board hiring a program manager by this fall.

“Despite an outpouring of emails, calls and text messages from educators and the public, lawmakers fast-tracked a voucher bill in less than two weeks,” the organization wrote. “It is clear that this was a well-coordinated effort that began before the session started.”

With the last OK from the full Senate on a 20-8 vote Thursday, HB215 now goes next to Gov. Spencer Cox for a signature. He has already signaled that he will support the measure, though last year he opposed a similar bill with reservations that were not fully addressed in the version that has now passed.

The bill sets up a taxpayer-funded program to grant up to 5,000 students “scholarships” to attend a private school or be home-schooled. Called the “Utah Fits All Scholarship,” the proposal has been framed by sponsor Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, as a way to give families more choices outside of the public education system and to force more competition with it. The awards will be prioritized for students from low-income families.

“We did it!” she tweeted Thursday after it passed.

The bill includes a $6,000 salary and benefits raise for every teacher across the state — which was made contingent on passing the vouchers and is set to take effect this fall.

Educators bristled at the two issues being tied together in HB215, calling it disingenuous and a bribe. Some said they would rather forego the raise than support the creation of a voucher program they worry will undermine public education in Utah, where classrooms already are among the least funded in the country.

Democrats in the Senate all voted against the bill Thursday, along with two Republicans, Sens. Derrin Owens and David Hinkins, who both represent more rural areas of Utah and worry there are not private schools there for students to go to. A similar vote took place last week in the House, with all Democrats opposed.

The Senate Democrats said in a statement after the passage that they are disappointed by the process. They had attempted to negotiate several proposed changes to the bill that they felt would add more accountability, including separating the voucher proposal from the teacher salary raises; all of those proposals, which would have slowed down the process for the bill to pass, were swiftly shot down.

They wrote: “H.B. 215 fails to support students and weakens public education by redirecting public funds to private institutions without any safeguards, protections against discrimination, and transparency.”

Opponents have been concerned that the bill gives $8,000 per student — double the amount the state currently allocates per child in the public education system — to attend a private school, where there are no requirements to hire licensed teachers, no restrictions on curriculum and no mandates to support students with disabilities. They also said low-income families likely wouldn’t end up being able to use the option as the average private school tuition in Utah is nearly $11,000.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students and teachers from East High School, walk out of school to protest the HB15 voucher bill, on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023.

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

Better Utah, a left-leaning organization in the state, questioned the setup for the vouchers, suggesting it “robs” public education of funding. The group pointed to a statement made by a lobbyist supporting the voucher program who said the point was to “destroy public education”; a recording of that remark from Allison Sorensen was shared on social media this week, and she later apologized.

Meanwhile, conservative groups heralded the passage. Heritage Action, a national right-leaning organization that has supported the bill, calling it a win for “education freedom and parental rights.”

The bill was voted through, even after Republican lawmakers throughout the process have said it wasn’t perfect and still needed work.

“We probably won’t get this right today,” noted Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, on the House floor last week.

“We can still tweak and fine tune,” added Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan.

“I do have a lot of concerns with this bill,” said Rep. Doug Welton, R-Payson, who said he would vote for it anyway. “We still have more work to do.”

Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy and the Senate sponsor, of the bill also acknowledged both in the Senate Education Committee on Monday and during the first Senate vote Wednesday that the measure would require “tweaks” as it was implemented. And on Thursday, he said “there’s opportunity” for more guardrails on the program down the road.

The Legislature will have a chance to change or reconsider the bill in its session next year, which will come before the scholarships start in fall 2024.

Cullimore also continued to defend the bill as having the necessary checks, including requiring students on the scholarship to either submit a portfolio at the end of the school year to show what they have learned or to take an opt-in assessment. There will also be annually required audits, he noted, for the program manager.

And he stressed that with the amount going into the fund — which he described as less than 1% of what the state allocates to public education (though 95% of students are in public schools) — he believes “it’s not really going to have a very strong or meaningful impact on the public education system.”

Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, told a story about a student he knew when he was the principal at the private Challenger School in the early 2000s. The student’s parents would pick him up in a broken down red van with the door tied on with yellow rope.

The family sacrificed to be able to pay for the private education, he said, because it was the best option for their son. Fillmore said he wants all families to have support and a scholarship, if needed, to help them do the same.

Here is a breakdown of what comes next with the measure and when the first awards will be given.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bill sponsor Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton introduces the current version of HB215, along with Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, as the Senate Education Committee discusses HB215, on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023.

1. Teacher salary increases will take effect this fall.

After it is signed by the governor, the first step in the bill will be implementing the approved raises for educators — $4,200 in salary and $1,800 in benefits.

Pierucci said Thursday that those will be in effect for the 2023-24 school year.

The raises are ongoing, meaning that bump will continue every year after this year, but they are not annually adjusted for inflation. Other lawmakers are currently looking at that possibility in bill drafts.

2. The state school board will find a program administrator.

The Utah State Board of Education is tasked with launching the RFP process, or request for proposal, to find an agency to manage the scholarships.

That will begin with the board issuing a request for bids as soon as possible. The bill says the board should be able to pick a company by this September.

Once in place, the program manager will set up an application where families can apply for funds. That should be online by March 2024.

3. The scholarship program will launch in fall 2024.

Students awarded scholarships will receive the money for those starting in the 2024-25 school year.

The money can be used for private school tuition or home-schooling expenses, including textbooks, field trips and technology.

4. The program will be audited annually.

The bill sets up a process for the voucher program to be audited every year.

The results of those audits will be reported to the Legislature’s Education Interim Committee every September after the program launches, so starting in September 2025.

The report from the program manager to the committee must include an overview of how many students are receiving scholarships and the number waitlisted (if any), the percentage of students in the program who came from a public school and a breakdown of how many low-income students were served, among other items.