Utah State School Board Votes Against Voucher Act

In a significant move, the state school board voted early Monday to oppose the voucher law currently rushing through the Utah Legislature that would allow students to use public funds to attend private schools.

The state’s top elected education leaders on the Utah State Board of Education are now joining a growing list of advocacy groups that have announced their opposition to the controversial measure — including the state’s largest teachers’ union and the Utah PTA.

“The education community has overwhelmingly opposed this law,” said Sarah Reale, a newly elected Democratic board member and an educator at Salt Lake Community College. “It’s just not good governance.”

The board, which oversees all K-12 public education in the state, voted against HB215 by a 10-5 in a bipartisan vote. The position came in an emergency session held just before the Senate Education Committee’s scheduled hearing on the bill, scheduled for 2 p.m. Monday.

Reale and Carol Lear, the two Democrats on the 15-member board, were supported by eight Republicans, who also voted not to support the measure. The remaining five Republicans — James Moss, Matt Hymas, Joseph Kerry, Emily Green and Jennie Earl — supported the bill or a neutral stance by the board.

“This law cannot be changed into good policy,” noted Member Christina Boggess, a Republican who was also elected this November.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Christina Boggess, a candidate for District 8 on the State Board of Education, speaks to voters at the Salt Lake County Republican Party Central Committee meeting at Alta High School, August 27, 2022 .

The board’s majority opinion was sent to all state lawmakers in a statement Monday.

HB215 intends to create a $42 million program called Utah Fits All Scholarship that 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.

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

Concerns from the state board

Members of the state school board echoed many of the concerns raised by educators about the bill, including that teachers feel devalued when their paycheck is tied to a voucher program that many do not support, and that many worries public schools Utahs will continue to falter .

Kristan Norton, a Republican board member who has also been a teacher for 25 years, said the proposed raise was “something I’ve never seen in my life.” But, she added, she cannot in good conscience support the law if she sees it as “skimming $42 million from public education for private companies.”

She’s also concerned that it only offers choices to those on the Wasatch frontline, where most of the state’s private schools are located. Those in rural areas, like her district in southern Utah, have fewer options.

Other board members said they were concerned about the lack of accountability for public taxpayer money in the program. In Utah, private schools are not required to hire licensed teachers, have no curriculum requirements, and are free to choose which students they admit.

“Taxpayers deserve information,” said Lear, who described herself as the “matriarch of anti-coupons.”

Natalie Cline, an outspoken Republican on the board, also opposed it. She said HB215 was “not the right role for government”.

Several members also expressed frustration that the board and other education officials were excluded from discussions on the bill, consulted or asked to work on the measure. And they feel it’s being rushed through the legislature to avoid that.

The bill passed through the Utah House on Friday after lawmakers suspended rules on the required waiting time for a proposal to be voted on. Most conservative voices on the panel voted in favor of HB215.

“This was deliberately rushed while our educator was being held hostage,” Reale said.

Another member described the lack of consultation with the board as a “personal affront”.

Cindy Davis, a Conservative member, said she has more questions about the bill than answers at this point – including how it will be administered and how transparent it will work.

She also thinks the funding is unfair. Currently, the state provides approximately $4,000 per student in a public school as part of the weighted student unit, or WPU (excluding additional allowances for students with disabilities). The voucher bill would provide students with an $8,000 stipend to attend private school or homeschool.

Davis said that rather than doubling the money students get from the state to leave public school, more could be invested in the choices already in place — including open enrollment, which allows families to move freely between districts and charters move.

What about the advocates?

But others on the board said there needs to be more innovation in education. Hymas, a Republican board member and high school principal at Charter American Preparatory Academy’s West Valley City Campus II, said he sees the board supporting innovation in name only, not in practice.

“I see this as an attempt to give back and innovate and try new things,” he said.

Moss, the chief executive, said he wanted to support the parents who have largely spoken out in favor of HB215. Four parents spoke out in favor of the bill during the board’s public comment period on Monday.

“We have to put the kids first and everything else second,” said one Ogden mother.

“My kids deserve to have a choice,” added Joe Johnson, a father.

Last week, the state school board compiled a questionnaire and gave it to the sponsors of the bill. The board said Tuesday’s vote is on how the bill is currently written and members can vote again if HB215 is amended.

Other efforts to oppose the bill

Teachers and parents across the state have also started a petition to oppose the coupon program. As of Monday afternoon, it had more than 600 signatures.

The group Utah Parents Involved in Education also launched a poster campaign. These read: “Public funds are for public schools. Vote no to HB215.”

(Utah Parents Involved in Education) An image of the billboard against HB215 from Utah Parents Involved in Education.

And Better Utah, a left-leaning organization in the state, launched a campaign that singled out Pierucci and Senator Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy and the Senate sponsor as the “No. 1 enemy of public education.” The group has sent 20,000 text messages to members of Cullimore and Pierucci.

Better Utah points to a similar bill by Pierucci that launched last year and failed. Nothing has changed substantially about the proposal this year, the organization says, but it’s being expedited for approval nonetheless.

(Better Utah) A photo of Better Utah’s text campaign against HB215.

https://www.sltrib.com/news/education/2023/01/23/siphoning-42-million-off-public/ Utah State School Board Votes Against Voucher Act

Justin Scaccy

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