Tricia Bunderson: The lack of ethics behind the Utah voucher bill

Legislature ignores ethics, democracy and the legislative process.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, sponsor of HB215, otherwise known as “Funding for teacher salaries and optional education opportunities,” is projected on a screen as she speaks on the bill in committee at the Utah Capitol during the start of the Legislative session on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023.

Bad policy is nearly always accompanied by bad process and a lack of ethics. Allow me to illustrate by using Utah’s school voucher bill (HB 215) as an example.

1. Legislators tied this controversial bill to teacher raises, basically holding increased teacher pay hostage unless the voucher bill passes.

2. The Legislature has suspended regular rules and processes for this bill. This cuts out important debates and adjustments, and purposefully limits transparency and public participation.

3. Where did all the money come from to fund a pro-voucher messaging campaign that began weeks before the session started, complete with bill specifics, websites, graphics, text blasts and t-shirts?

4. There was no collaboration with public education groups about a policy that will deeply affect education. Does that not sound odd to you?

5. Vouchers are not supported by the research as a way to improve education. Why are we not supporting data-driven policies and supporting programs that actually work? For a very similar cost to the voucher program, the Legislature could make full-day kindergarten an option for all Utah families, and we know that it is an investment that reaps significant benefits.

6. Legislators and pro-voucher groups have used flawed data to misrepresent constituents. They have touted a survey saying that 74% of parents support vouchers and that the tide of public opinion has shifted, but what is hidden in the fine print is that the cited survey includes just 85 parents. I think it’s safe to say that n=85 is not a representative sample.

7. I’m concerned about legislators who make policies while also having their hands in the cookie jar. We have seen this with charter schools and I’m sure it will happen with private schools as well. Several members of the legislature sit on outside school boards or have stakes in companies that profit off of contracting with these schools. In my book, that sounds like a conflict of interest.

8. The Republican supermajority doesn’t seem to be interested in the will of the people. Time for a bit of history. Back in 2007, the Legislature passed a voucher law, but citizens were so dismayed that they gathered 125,000 signatures in order to put it to a statewide referendum vote later that year. The result? Vouchers were soundly defeated. The Legislature doesn’t want to be overruled again so it has insulated itself with a two-thirds supermajority in both the House and the Senate, which will make the law veto-proof and ineligible for a referendum. Ask yourself if this type of behavior is indicative of leaders who are really interested in representing the will of the majority.

Bottom line: Policy matters. But I would argue that ethics matter even more. Because if we follow good processes and sound ethics, we are infinitely more likely to end up with policies that align with and serve the people.

We can and should continue to talk about ways to tailor educational opportunities and to help each child thrive. We can do that by having real conversations with parents and educators, by giving all voices a seat at the table, by supporting data-driven programs, and by upholding the highest level of ethics. HB215 and the process behind it do none of those things.

Tricia Bunderson

Tricia Bunderson, Lehi, is a mom of four kids by day, registered nurse by night, and advocate of ethical government in the moments in between.