Utah House pushes through controversial coupon bill after rules were suspended

A controversial bill to create a taxpayer-funded $42 million school voucher program in Utah — the largest in the state’s history — was pushed through the House on Friday amid suspended rules that allowed lawmakers to pass it without the necessary allow waiting time.

The Republican-led proposal passed by a vote of 54 to 20, which in the closing minutes of the first week’s speaking period was already turning into a fast and furious session.

“This is the beginning of us reinventing public education in Utah,” said Representative Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, the sponsor of HB215.

The bill provides for what Pierucci has dubbed the “Utah Fits All Scholarship,” which would allow students to use public funds to attend private schools or be homeschooled. It is touted as a way to give parents and children more choices in education.

Pierucci’s proposal also includes an ongoing $6,000 salary and benefit increase for teachers statewide — pending voucher approval.

The measure faces opposition from Utah’s largest teachers’ union, which has said educators feel devalued because their paycheck is tied to a voucher program many don’t support, and many fear Utah public schools will continue to hobble. Funding per student in the state is already among the lowest in the nation, surpassing only Idaho.

An attempt by Democratic Rep. Angela Romero of Salt Lake City to split the bill into two parts was defeated by the conservative majority on Friday. Romero argued that teacher increases should not be leverage to pass other policies.

“I think these are two different issues and they need to be discussed in two different bills,” she said.

She was supported by Democrats and a few Republicans, including Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield. He called it “disingenuous” to tie the issues together to force support.

But Rep. Douglas Welton, R-Payson, who is a public school teacher, voted in favor of the pay rise bill – even after calling it “one of the biggest bribes”. He said he would like to see more work done before final passage of the bill that will next go to the Senate.

Friday’s vote to pass the bill was supported only by Republican lawmakers. All 13 Democrats in the House of Representatives, along with seven Republicans, voted against. Nevertheless, the vote was enough to represent two-thirds of the panel. If the bill passes with an equal majority in the Senate, it will be safe from both a veto and a referendum.

Pierucci has insisted that the two issues of teacher salaries and vouchers remain together as a funding package. She believes this shows that while the state wants students to be able to explore other educational options, it also supports public school educators. She spoke about her own experience attending public schools in Utah.

After the bill passed in committee late Thursday, she made some changes before it was heard in the House on Friday morning.

Her amended bill capped the amount allocated annually to the program at $42 million, rather than allowing it to grow with annual adjustments to the weighted student unit amount, or WPU — which has caused problems in other states with similar programs. The WPU here, currently set at about $4,000, is what each public school receives from the state for each child enrolled there (with no additional allowances for students with disabilities).

But Pierucci didn’t change the amount her scholarship would allocate per student, which was a source of heartburn. The Utah Fits All Scholarship is an $8,000 award — double the state-established WPU.

Pierucci said she came up with the number by combining the roughly $4,000 WPU with the average amount spent on students by each Utah school district, which is about another $4,000. This second part is collected locally through property taxes and is subject to local control and decision-making on how it is spent.

Some have argued that this is not a fair institution and values ​​scholarship recipients more than those who choose public schools. And for every student who leaves a public school to enroll elsewhere, the school stops getting its WPU and essentially loses funding and government support.

Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, said she doesn’t think the law will support low-income families, as Pierucci has argued.

Pierucci says students in households living below the poverty line will be prioritized for the scholarship.

But Hollins said many of those families wouldn’t be able to use it anyway because they don’t have transportation to a private school and couldn’t afford the difference between the scholarship and the private school fees. The average tuition at a private school in Utah is approximately $11,000 per year.

“It doesn’t give every student equal access,” Hollins said, noting that people in her district choose whether to pay for the bus to work, buy new shoes, or leave the lights on.

Others said they were concerned about sending public money to private institutions that don’t have government mandates to hire licensed teachers or teach a set curriculum. Most schools are religious. And there is no obligation for private schools to help students with disabilities.

“Because it’s public money, it should go to public schools,” which will be held publicly accountable, said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, a former public school teacher.

However, the main concern of the largely democratic opposition was the rush to vote on the law. Rules in the House of Representatives typically require that a bill be on the calendar 24 hours before a vote so lawmakers can read it before debate. It wasn’t until 19 hours after the bill passed in committee that the full House voted on it on Friday, after the rules were suspended.

The most recent draft, incorporating Pierucci’s changes, “was numbered at 10:00 a.m. this morning, introduced and debated at 11:15 a.m. with rules suspended, and passed at around 12:30 p.m. For no good reason,” Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, wrote on Twitter after the vote.

He added: “The vote by an informed body and the public might as well have taken place on Monday morning. #abuse of power”

However, Pierucci and others said it was essentially the same bill, with a few minor changes, that she had been working on this week – and tried to pass last year but failed.

Among the other changes she has made is that a student can attend a public school part-time and then receive a partial stipend to receive private tuition or homeschool the rest.

MP Karen Peterson, R-Clinton, said she liked this addition and suggested opening the scholarship up to more students in rural areas who may not have access to a nearby private school (most of which focus on the Wasatch Front).

The other change was what Pierucci calls an additional “accountability measure.” In the original bill, the test scores of students leaving public schools for private schools could not be tracked. Opponents wanted this provision so they could study the program’s success.

In the version approved on Friday, grantees have the option to complete an assessment at the end of the year or submit a portfolio of their school work to the grant administration as proof of their education. Peterson believes this will help see if the coupons “move the needle.” Others said it wasn’t strong enough.

Peterson said the bill supports Republican values ​​of creating choice and a competitive marketplace for schools. And she also likes the “guard rails” for the administrator who will be overseeing the program.

Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, agreed, adding that in recent years he has spoken to parents who have concerns about the books being taught in public schools – which he legislated on last year. And he didn’t like that schools had to be masked at times during the pandemic and thinks parents should have a choice outside of that.

Pierucci said her impetus was the COVID-19 pandemic, which proved to her that not all students thrive in public schools.

“The last few years,” she said, “have made it clear that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for every child.”

https://www.sltrib.com/news/education/2023/01/20/utah-house-pushes-through/ Utah House pushes through controversial coupon bill after rules were suspended

Justin Scaccy

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