What a difference a year makes.
Last year, Herriman Rep. Candice Pierucci’s bill creating a school voucher program never got much traction. She spent weeks negotiating and rewriting the bill five times, but when the votes were tallied it went down in flames, failing 22-53.
This year, her House Bill 215 wasn’t radically different from the one last year, but the number of representatives backing the bill shot from 22 all the way up to 54. It begs the question of why there is such a large difference. What changed? And does this vote actually reflect the wishes of Utahns?
That last question leads to what I think is a pretty reasonable solution that I’ll get into later. But first, let’s look at how the voucher proponents flipped the script so dramatically.
The voucher backers started with their 22 votes from last year — 20 Republican holdovers plus two new GOP members followed their predecessors’ lead.
They were just two of 13 newly elected members who sided with the voucher bill, but 11 of those 13 replaced members who had voted against school vouchers last year. That includes three seats that Democrats lost last year.
More remarkable though, is that eight new Republican voucher supporters replaced moderates who had previously opposed the scheme.
That is a very high turnover and, more importantly in this case, a significant number of flipped votes in the span of a single election. But it still would have only got the voucher backers to 33 votes — well short of the 38 they would have needed.
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It gets us to the number that was the most jaw-dropping: 21 Republicans who opposed vouchers last year flipped their votes this time around.
Twenty-one! More than a third of the Republican caucus did a complete 180-degree turn.
That includes many rural legislators, who last year were concerned about the availability of private options and the impact on their districts.
Rep. Phil Lyman, who represents a sprawling section of southeastern Utah, said this year’s bill was simpler and more streamlined. And his local districts told him that only a few students would likely receive vouchers, meaning a minimal impact. It was enough to change his vote.
Representatives like Ray Ward of Bountiful and Robert Spendlove of Sandy also flipped, backing the bill after language was added to try to ensure that voucher students actually are learning something.
“This bill had one thing that was more important to me that was missing,” Ward told me. “In the [original bill] there was no accounting of the student’s progress.”
The new version requires voucher students to submit a “portfolio” at the end of every school year containing descriptions and examples of things they have learned.
Rep. Karen Peterson, R-Clinton, negotiated the portfolio requirement and several other additions to the bill.
“It was clear to me that the majority of my colleagues planned to support the bill, likewise the governor had signaled he intended to sign it,” Peterson told me, she worked to address concerns she and the education community had with the bill. Having negotiated concessions, she felt obliged to vote for it.
While the accountability piece is a slight improvement, it’s still very weak. There is no required testing, so we can’t measure how voucher students are performing compared to their public school peers. Nor is there any way for parents shopping for private options to compare one school to another.
It’s hard to imagine that is an accident, especially when we consider that, in repeated studies in recent years in places where student performance is measured — Louisiana, Ohio, Indiana and Washington, D.C. — the voucher students do not do better and in many respects do worse than public school students.
Peterson also got language removed that would have automatically increased the amount of money and the number of vouchers issued through the program, meaning if the Legislature wants to expand the program, there would need to vote to do so.
And language was added to let students who take some classes in a public school and some at a private school, online or at home to receive a partial voucher for their homeschooling or private schooling.
“I negotiated these changes in good faith and felt I needed to demonstrate that … by voting yes on the floor,” Peterson said.
Linking the voucher program to an $8,400 salary bump for teachers also seems to have made a difference. Last year, she said, most of her constituents opposed vouchers. This year, 58% of those who responded to her constituent surveys said they supported the bill.
“It was a different bill,” Peterson said, “especially with the addition of the teacher salaries.”
Sen. Todd Weiler also posted on social media recently that the constituents who responded to his surveys also now support vouchers.
The obvious problem, though, is that those surveys only measure the people who responded — and it’s unclear how much they know about the bill.
For example, do they know that private schools with less than 150 students don’t have to conduct criminal background checks on any of their teachers or employees? Do they know that there’s no meaningful performance measurement? Do they know that many rural areas don’t have private school options? Are they aware that, by taking a voucher, parents waive their legal rights to special education or other disability services for their child? Would it change their mind if they knew that the proposed voucher would still leave working-class families $5,000 short of the average high school tuition?
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Utahns know all of this and still support vouchers. Maybe the pandemic changed minds and now the Legislature is simply responding to that and representing their constituents.
I don’t buy it. I think we’re seeing the effects of gerrymandering and a broken political process that forces legislators to respond to the loudest, most strident GOP partisans.
There’s a simple way to find out: Put it on the ballot in 2024 and go make the case to voters.
They likely won’t do that, because, from the 2018 ballot initiatives up to last year’s resounding rejection of the Legislature’s latest attempt to grab more power from the governor, their track record hasn’t been great.
But the point remains that we don’t have to guess where Utahns stand on vouchers. Put it to a vote and let the chips fall where they may. If legislators are so confident they are representing their constituents, they shouldn’t have anything to be afraid of.