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Utah lawmakers are working with startling speed on the teacher pay/school choice bill

2023 Utah Legislative Session, Utah State Capitol, Jan 23. 2023
Martha Harris
The leaders of several Utah education groups held a press conference at the State Capitol on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, to express their opposition to HB215, a bill that would give teachers a pay raise and create a school voucher program. Public educators and their families showed up to the rally with signs and wore red.

Update: HB215 received final approval from the Senate, 20-8 on Jan. 26. The bill now heads to the governor.

Update, Jan. 25 @ 3:44 p.m.: The Utah Legislature is another step closer to sending HB215, which would raise teacher pay and create a school voucher program, to the governor. Democrats tried five times to make changes to the bill before it passed 20-8 on the Senate floor Wednesday. It still has one more vote to go.

"At this point, I would reject any amendments as we have a pretty tenuous bill at this point based on what the House, the House work and compromises that were made over there," said Republican floor sponsor Sen. Kirk Cullimore.

If the bill passes the Senate with a two-thirds majority, citizens would not be able to use the referendum process to put the issue on the ballot. In 2007, Utah voters repealed the state’s voucher law with a referendum. Our original story continues below.

It’s only week two of the 2023 Utah Legislative Session and Rep. Candice Pierucci’s “Funding for Teacher Salaries and Optional Education Opportunities” bill has already made its way through the House and just needs to pass on the Senate floor.

HB215 passed through the House Education Committee with a favorable recommendation on Jan. 19 and was passed by the full House on a 54 to 20 vote the next day. Seven Republicans joined all 13 House Democrats in voting against the bill.

The bill was able to move quickly because the House suspended a rule that requires a bill to be on the reading calendar for 24 hours before it’s voted on. Without that wait, the bill was passed by committee late last Thursday and by the full House on Friday.

Democrats made attempts to slow things down, including a failed motion to table the bill in the Senate Education Committee by Democratic Sen. Kathleen Riebe.

“Many of my educational peers were really concerned about how fast this came on,” Riebe said. “It’s not a vote for it or against it. It’s just an opportunity for our educational partners to answer questions and get some clarity to this bill.”

Senate President Stuart Adams told reporters the bill may be voted on by the full Senate on Jan. 25.

Supporters are excited by the rapid progress and optimistic about its future.

“This is a great step of putting trust back into the people who should be primarily responsible for the education of their children, which is the parents or guardians,” said Heidi Balderree, community engagement director for the Utah chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group. “I do believe parents know best.”

Balderree wore a “Utah Fits All” t-shirt during Monday’s Senate committee meeting. She repeatedly gave a thumbs up when someone spoke positively about the bill and school choice.

Utah Parents United, a conservative parent group, is also in favor of the bill. The group’s president, Nichole Mason, told lawmakers during the committee that because there is opposition “on both sides” it means the bill is probably just right.

Several education organizations, including the Utah State Board of Education, are opposed to HB215.

Leaders from the state’s largest teachers union, Utah PTA, Utah School Boards Association, Utah School Superintendents Association and the Utah Association of School Business Officials gathered with teachers at the Capitol Monday evening to express their opposition. Many wore red as a part of the “Red for Ed” movement focused on public education.

Speakers oppose the bill for multiple reasons. Several said this bill would not benefit most students, they had concerns about accountability, they did not like that teacher pay and vouchers were combined into one bill and said public funding should be sent to public schools. Speakers were also upset over how quickly the bill has progressed.

Washington County School District Superintendent Larry Bergeson told the crowd he would normally begin his speech by thanking Utah’s elected officials for how they’ve supported public education in the past.

“However, today I am shocked at the deception and tactics taking place as they attempt to force through HB215,” Bergeson said. “I must ask, what have we in public education done to deserve this?”

Mike Evans, a maintenance worker in the Weber School District and a representative of the Utah School Employees Association, pointed out that while teachers would get a raise, some school employees would be left out, including bus drivers and janitors.

“The bill dangles a well-deserved bonus for our teachers, [a] well-deserved bonus for educators, in exchange for passing what is essentially a school voucher program,” Evans said. “The bill does not even mention a bonus or raise for ESP [Education Support Professionals] educators, which are vital.”

After Evans said this, the audience yelled “that’s right” and booed. He ended his speech by saying that every school employee is a part of one team that is trying to serve students.

“We also need the Senate and the governor to be on our team,” Evans said to loud cheers.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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