The Utah Legislature has surrendered another of the garrisons that guards public education in our state, and Gov. Spencer Cox is out in front, proudly waving the white flag.
Just eight days into the 2023 session, with almost no public input, lawmakers passed HB 215, which will shift, in the first year, 42 million taxpayer dollars from our underfunded system of public education to unsupervised private and religious schools. It was the ultimate back-room deal, one that benefits the legislative leadership and the governor at the expense of the public process.
Voucher advocates want Utah families and their children to think they are doing them a favor. But all they have really done is make it more difficult for the next generation of Utahns — an increasingly diverse group that needs a strong system of public education to negotiate an ever-more complex civilization — to rise to become the kind of workers, voters and citizens we need and deserve.
A system of public education that, vouchers or no vouchers, will be responsible for educating the vast majority of our students. Right now there is a large surplus in the state’s income tax fund, which pays for education. That should be an opportunity to build up a system that was so harshly buffeted by the recent pandemic, not further undermine it.
There is much more going on here than just how Utahns pay for their schools. The whole show is another example of how our leaders basically hold their own constituents in utter contempt. How they are devoted to beating back every effort the public makes to assert its rights and see to its needs, in the hope that we will eventually just give up and allow ourselves to be ruled by a small clique of oligarchs.
The people of Utah overwhelmingly voted down a similar school voucher scheme in 2007. But voucher advocates never gave up.
In 2018, the people of Utah voted in a process to draw fair congressional and legislative districts, voted for the expansion of Medicaid and backed a system to make medical cannabis available to those in need. The Legislature destroyed the anti-gerrymandering referendum, delayed the implementation of Medicaid for years and rejiggered the medical cannabis system.
And now, a few key members of the Legislature, including bill sponsor sponsor, Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, cooked up a plan to take a long-overdue $6,000-per-teacher raise offered by the governor and tie it to a school voucher plan that would offer $8,000 per student. That’s twice what the state pays the public schools for each pupil — so they can be homeschooled or attend a private or religious school.
These leaders know there is no significant demand for such a program. Vouchers already available for a few special-needs students have gone mostly unclaimed.
Along the Wasatch Front, these vouchers won’t be nearly enough to pay any student’s full private school tuition. The beneficiaries will be well-off families who already send their children to private schools. In the rest of the state, there are virtually no private schools.
But, after the frustration many families felt as schools negotiated the vicissitudes of the pandemic — and with the air filled with bogus claims of racist history lessons, promotion of gender fluidity and other skullduggery supposedly going on in public schools — folks who really don’t see the point of public education saw their chance. Or created it.
Not everyone is fooled.
Not only have teachers, parents and students in large numbers objected to the voucher plan, the Republican-majority Utah State Board of Education also came out against it. Even some of the more visible standard-bearers of far-right politics in Utah — Eagle Forum leader Gayle Ruzicka and state school board member Natalie Cline — are opposed.
On one side, there is justified concern that state money will go to schools that have no recognized standards for teacher credentials, for nondiscrimination, for inclusion of handicapped students. And public money paying for religious education blurs what should be a firm line between church and state.
On the other side, there is the equally justified worry that, even if there are few strings attached to vouchers now, it is not likely to remain that way. That taxpayer-funded vouchers could be the camel’s nose under the tent, with a strong prospect that more rules and regulations will come.
A leaked recording of a voucher advocate admitting that her long-term goal is to “destroy public education” was withdrawn, but could not be unheard. This bill won’t destroy public education. Not all by itself, anyway. But it will weaken it. And that is very clearly the point.
The whole scheme isn’t even original. It’s lazily borrowed from Arizona, where the numbers show most voucher users were already in private school. And from Iowa, where State Auditor Rob Sand called the whole idea “fundamentally irresponsible” and dinged the plan for its total lack of public or government oversight.
The bill passed both houses of the Utah Legislature by margins large enough to not only overturn a governor’s veto — which, sadly, didn’t happen — but also any attempt to bring the matter to a public vote.
That doesn’t mean Utah’s voters — Utah’s families — should give up. That’s what legislative leaders expect.
The Utah Education Association promises to explore “every option available to overturn this damaging legislation that jeopardizes the future of public education.”
Every parent, every student, every teacher, every local school board member, every Utahn who cares at all about future generations, should be giving their lawmakers a serious talking-to. Marching up to the Capitol. Planning to run for the Legislature or to campaign for and donate to others who will run. Not just to protect public education, but to preserve democracy.