Plan to give tax credits to Utah parents who pulled kids out of school during pandemic falters in Senate

Opponents worried the bill was a backdoor school vouchers proposal.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) This Feb. 8, 2021, file photo shows a social distancing marker in a hallway as students return to Highland High School in Salt Lake City. A tax-credit bill some saw as a school voucher bill fell short in the Utah Senate on Tuesday.

A proposal to provide a one-time tax credit to parents who home-schooled or sent their children to a private school due to the COVID-19 pandemic fell short twice Tuesday in the state Senate.

SB242 from freshman Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden, provided a tax credit to help pay for educational expenses, including supplies, tuition or fees, related to home-schooling or private schools. The tax credit was only available to parents who pulled their children out of public school last year and only good for the current tax year.

“This is an extraordinary circumstance where parents were in a position where many of them couldn’t send their kids to school, and there were home-schools or private education they could enroll in,” explained Johnson.

His proposal would cost a little over $3.3 million to provide tax credits that are set at 75% of the weighted pupil unit (WPU), the basic funding mechanism for Utah schools. Currently, the WPU is just over $3,800, so each tax credit is worth approximately $2,850.

“It kind of seems ironic that we’ve spent this whole session talking about getting kids back to school in person, and now we’re giving them an incentive to stay home,” argued Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, who noted that she was not aware of a single school board or education association in favor of the proposal.

Johnson’s bill was made public just six days ago. Opponents suspected it was a backdoor attempt at vouchers, which funnels taxpayer money intended for public education to private schools. Utah voters roundly rejected vouchers at the ballot box in 2007.

Johnson explained that his proposal was not a voucher per se, since it provided a tax credit to parents who have already paid tuition for a private school. Traditionally, vouchers are given to parents to help pay for tuition before enrollment.

Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, was unimpressed by Johnson’s explanation.

“If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. This looks a lot like a voucher bill,” he said.

On Thursday morning, Johnson’s bill received a 13-9 vote, short of the minimum 15 votes required to pass the Senate. Johnson successfully brought the proposal back to the floor a few hours later only to see the bill fail by a single vote on a 14-12 tally.