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Utah Senate committee advances school voucher bill; ed groups unite in opposition

By Harrison Epstein - | Jan 24, 2023
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Utah Parent Teacher Association President Stacey Mollinet speaks at a rally against House Bill 215, a proposal to create a school voucher program in Utah, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023.
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Weber School District's Mike Evans, Utah School Employees Association president, speaks at a rally against House Bill 215, a proposal to create a school voucher program in Utah, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023.
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An opponent of House Bill 215, a proposal to create a school voucher program in Utah, holds a sign during a rally at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023.
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Renèe Pinkney, president of the Utah Education Association, speaks at a rally against House Bill 215, a proposal to create a school voucher program in Utah, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023.

Just after the Utah Senate education committee voted 7-2 to advance House Bill 215, the Utah Fits All bill that would to let students use public funds for private education, myriad eduction-focused interest groups held a joint press conference opposing the bill.

Leaders from the Utah School Boards Association, the Utah School Superintendents Association, the Utah Association of School Business Officials, the Utah Parent Teacher Association and the Utah Education Association, among others, spoke out against the proposed legislation.

“Any voucher, or tuition tax credit or tax scholarship plan under which private education is subsidized with (public) tax dollars for affluent families along the Wasatch Front at the expense of rural families with no access to private schools will seriously undermine public education and our students’ success,” said Renèe Pinkney, UEA president and Park City School District social studies teacher.

Members of the different organizations spoke directly about how the bill would affect their colleagues and specific areas of focus. Stacey Mollinet, president of Utah PTA, was critical of the bill for leaving “no protections” for special education students and reiterated criticisms that the bill would harm students in rural areas by “new service providers being created in these areas with no accountability.”

Todd Hauber, UASBO president and Granite School District employee, targeted “misinformation” by supporters of the bill. Supporters argue that schools receive $8,000 per student, thus setting the school voucher at $8,000, but Hauber told the crowd public schools receive $4,000, meaning “this bill will double the value of that individual’s education.”

Michael Evans spoke on behalf of education support professionals. Evans, a Weber School District employee and 2021 recipient of the Utah Recognizing Inspiring School Employees Award, criticized the voucher proposal for being tied to a $6,000 raise for teachers — a raise that he supports, but which would not be afforded to any of the other school employees, including secretaries, custodians and lunchroom workers.

Late Sunday night, an audio recording was shared online of Allison Sorenson, marketing director for Utah Fits All, at a public training for the scholarship. Sorenson told attendees she wants to “destroy public education” — a comment featured on several signs held by the bill’s opponents.

Joining the classroom professionals and administrators in their opposition were other elected officials. Shauna Warnick, a member of the Nebo School District Board of Education from Spanish Fork, expressed concern as to how the bill’s supporters have described public education.

“They’ve been characterized as a one size fits all — nothing can be further from the truth. We have so many options for students, not only outside a regular public school during the day but in each elementary school we look at every student and we meet them where they’re at,” Warnick told the Daily Herald. “I feel like our legislators are really well intentioned, truly. I feel like people that are working to disassemble public education are trying to get their nose in the tent and this is their first attempt to do that.”

She added that the message of the bill to teachers, including a raise while shifting funds away from public schools, was disingenuous and signals that teachers are not doing a good enough job.”

Warnick also shared her feelings about Sen. Mike McKell, also of Spanish Fork, saying during the committee hearing he would support the school voucher bill.

“He is normally a great supporter of public education and I’m disappointed with his choice, but I very much respect my senator,” she said.

Ogden School District Superintendent Luke Rasmussen, also in attendance, said he has spoken with legislators from the area and that they’re typically receptive but that, on this issue, “it seems like this was decided months ago.” He added a hope that the bill will be tabled so the Legislature can bring in stakeholders to discuss what is needed to better assist public schools.

“We have so many needs in our school system and we try to provide education for all our students, and this takes funding that otherwise could have went to our public system to support our students, support our systems, and it takes it right away from the pot,” Rasmussen said. “I have a lot of concerns about the lack of accountability for the voucher bill, we have so much accountability on us in public education and they are holding us to a different standard than they are the private schools they’re willing to give the money to.”

The Republican-majority Utah State Board of Education met early Monday to discuss H.B. 215, voting 10-5 on a measure expressing opposition to the measure. State lawmakers make the call, but the state education officials said they wanted to discuss the matter and weigh in since it bears on education.

“Since the bill passed out of House Education Committee and the House Floor so quickly, board members felt this may be the only chance to formally weigh in as an entity before the Senate Education Committee meets this afternoon,” said Kelsey James, communications coordinator for the board.

Either way, he said, the board will comply with whatever the final outcome on the issue. Weber County’s representatives split on Monday’s motion, with Brent Strate voting for the motion of opposition and Joseph Kerry against it. Utah County’s reps also split, with Cindy Davis, Natalie Cline and Randy Boothe voting for the motion of opposition and James Moss and Emily Green voting against it.

The Utah House Democratic caucus, which entirely voted against the measure, released a statement Monday criticizing the bill’s passage.

“Over 90% of Utah’s school-age children attend public schools. This bill puts taxpayer dollars that could be meaningfully invested into our public schools into exclusive and unregulated private schools without any accountability,” the statement reads.

While the entire Democratic caucus voted against H.B. 215, they were joined by several GOP members in opposition. The only Utah County representative to vote against the vouchers was Rep. Marsha Judkins, a former member of the Provo City School District Board of Education.

All nine members of the education committee represent part of the Wasatch Front. The seven senators voting for the bill, all Republicans, were Stuart Adams, Lincoln Fillmore, Keith Grover, John Johnson McKell, Ann Millner and Jerry Stevenson. The two votes against were by Kathleen Riebe, a Cottonwood Heights Democrat, and David Hinkins, whose district includes parts of Carbon, Emery, Grand, San Juan, Wasatch and Utah counties. The bill now advances to the full Senate. If passed, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox would be left to either sign or veto the bill, which passed the Utah House with a veto-proof majority.

“Public schools are required to be accountable for the way public funds are used. House Bill 215 does not do enough to require accountability for the use of these taxpayer dollars to fund private entities,” said Brigit Gerrard, USBA president.

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