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Utah lawmakers advance ‘school voucher’ bill

Stack of Book and Money on a scale.
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Lawmakers narrowly passed the education bill by a 6-5 margin in a committee vote. It will now move on to the full House for further approval.

Lawmakers in the the House Revenue and Taxation Committee heard more than an hour of public comment Tuesday on a controversial bill that would use public education funding to help pay for private school tuition, home school expenses and other education costs.

The bill, H.B. 331, would allocate $36 million from the state’s public education budget to the newly-created Hope Scholarship Program, which would be overseen by a yet to be determined “scholarship granting organization.”

Almost all K-12 students in the state would be eligible to apply. If more apply than there is available funding for, applicants would be chosen at random.

The bill raises what is perhaps one of the most contentious issues among education stakeholders — using public education funds for private schools. Research appears mixed on whether such programs lead to better student outcomes, but proponents say they help families attend schools that are most responsive to their individual needs.

Utah voters rejected an effort to launch a school voucher program in 2007, but bill sponsor Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, said public opinion on the issue has changed after families sought out public school alternatives during the pandemic.

“This bill is not saying that our public education system is broken,” she said. “It is saying, though, that parents would like to see more options available to them.”

Pierucci said the bill prioritizes lower-income families. At least 25% of the scholarships would have to go to families making 200% or less of the federal poverty level — about $55,000 a year for a family of four. They would be eligible to receive up to twice the amount of the weighted pupil unit each year, currently at $3,908.

Average private school tuition in Utah ranges from about $11,190 for elementary schools to $13,324 for high schools, according to the website Private School Review.

Pierucci said current estimates on the legislation show students would receive about $5,000 on average, most of which is expected to pay for home-schooling and microschools.

The public response Tuesday, however, focused almost universally on private schools.

A mother of three teenagers said she supported the bill because it could help her pay for St. Francis Xavier Catholic School in Kearns, which her kids at one point attended but had to leave due to the cost. She said the public schools her kids attend now are too big and lack the sense of community they previously had.

“There [are] fights usually every day at schools and the safety is just not there,” the woman said.

Those against the bill worry it would divert money from an already-strained public education system to private institutions that are less accountable to taxpayers. Some pointed out that while the bill outlines extensive financial reporting, it specificies little oversight on assessing student learning and achievement.

“Our education system has gone through so much this last year and really persevered through the pandemic, said Angie Stallings, deputy superintendent with the Utah State Board of Education. “Now is the time to invest more in public [education] and not divert those funds to private schools and home school.”

Some stipulations of the bill are also still in question. Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said as written it appears to require the state to double the program’s funding each year. If true, he noted, that in 10 years the program would have access to nearly $2 billion in state funds.

Pierucci said that was not the intention and she would work to clarify the language. She said the program was only supposed to grow along with inflation.

Lawmakers narrowly passed the bill by a 6-5 margin. It will now move on to the full House for further approval.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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