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School voucher bill fails overwhelmingly in Utah House

Photo of classroom.
Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, sponsored a voucher bill to empower parents to “make the decision best for their children.”

After Utah lawmakers raised concerns about public education funding and accountability, a controversial school voucher bill failed to pass the Utah House Monday by a 22-53 vote.

HB 331 would have given students a scholarship for private school tuition, private tutors or textbooks if they were opted out of public school. The amount they got would have been based on income. For example, a family of four making $53,000 a year or less would receive the most: double the amount the public school was receiving for that student.

The organization granting the scholarships would have had to give preference to low-income families and students who have been bullied.

“Empowering parents and recognizing that they should be able to make the decisions best for their children is one of the most ultimate conservative principles,” said bill sponsor Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman. “We need to refocus on what education is for and take a holistic approach to funding our education system. You can support a robust public education system and support this bill.”

The legislation first ran into trouble when Gov. Spencer Cox said earlier this month he would veto it because he didn’t want to take funding away from public education for vouchers until teachers were making at least $60,000 as a starting salary.

Pierucci then changed the bill to “hold education harmless” by requiring per-pupil funding to stay at the public school the student last attended.

But it wasn’t enough to sway critics like Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden.

“These dollars may not be taking directly from public education now that they're coming from general fund dollars, but what are they competing for?” Waldrip said. “Those funds could be allocated to serve every child in the state of Utah with full-day kindergarten as opposed to this limited number of students with scholarships.”

Waldrip sponsored a $48 million bill to require all schools across the state to offer full-day kindergarten, but top lawmakers ended up only giving the program $12 million in their budget recommendations released Friday. The full-day kindergarten bill passed the House but still needs to be approved by the full Senate.

Others worried about the state’s ability to ensure the voucher money was well-spent. The legislation required the scholarship program to report students’ scores on a test that measured them against other students. But, a student could have opted out of that assessment.

“If we expand this line item, can we come back and say that it's benefiting children?” said Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, a former teacher. “I don't see strong accountability measures here. [There’s] very minimal accountability measures here and then with an opportunity to opt out.”

Supporters of the bill, like House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said it would help students struggling in the public school system.

“I love our public education system in this state of Utah, and I think they're the best in the nation,” Schultz said. “They're amazing at what they do with the resources they have. The outcomes that they get are fantastic. But let's not pretend that it works for every student in this state because it doesn't.”

Schultz added that the education community would likely never support any kind of voucher bill.

The Utah Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, applauded the vote.

“Thank you!” UEA President Heidi Matthews tweeted. “[UEA]’s mission is to support the promise of public education for all students! (Not vouchers)”

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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