When state lawmakers meet in a special session on Thursday, they will reconsider a bill vetoed by Gov. Gary Herbert earlier this month that would create a tax credit to fund special needs scholarships for private school students.
House Bill 332, which was sponsored by Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, during this year’s general session, would have established a non-refundable income tax credit for individuals and corporations that wanted to donate to a Special Needs Opportunity Scholarship Program for students outside of the public education system.
The bill made it through both chambers in March, passing 46-24 in the House and 17-12 in the Senate. On April 1, Herbert announced that he had vetoed H.B. 332 and three other bills “that amend tax policy in a time of uncertainty.”
The governor added he had “additional concerns with the approach the bill takes to funding services for our students” and noted that private school students with special needs can already get scholarships through the Utah State Board of Education’s Carson Smith Scholarship Program.
In a proclamation issued on Tuesday, Herbert said the Utah State Legislature will convene on Thursday and consider, among other things, a bill that would create “a program to provide scholarships for students with disabilities to help cover certain costs to attend qualifying private schools” and create “related corporate and individual tax credits for certain donations to the scholarship program.”
The legislation will appear under a new bill number, according to a draft obtained by the Daily Herald. Additionally, it will include a number of changes from H.B. 322, including a provision requiring the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee “to study the feasibility of combining the program with the Carson Smith Scholarship Program.”
Another change under the new bill stipulates scholarship amounts would be determined by “parents’ adjusted gross household income,” meaning low-income students would be eligible for more money than wealthy students.
Schultz could not be reached on Tuesday to comment on the bill.
Those who support creating the special needs scholarship tax credit believe it would empower families who want to pay for their special needs child’s private school tuition or educational therapy. Those opposed — including the Utah State Board of Education, Utah PTA and Utah Education Association — say it would hurt Utah’s already underfunded public school system.
Utah PTA wrote a letter to Herbert on March 18 requesting that he veto H.B. 332, saying the “funding required for this bill could be used to appropriate funds for special needs students throughout the public education system including in our rural areas.”
“Instead, it will be used for a relatively small number of families who have access and ability to participate in private school,” the letter said.
Another concern cited by Utah PTA is that the bill would allow a portion of the donated money to go toward administrative costs.
“We have seen in other states that programs like this have become a way for donors to profit at the expense of public education,” Utah PTA said in the letter.
Ada Wilson, a board member of the Alpine School District Board of Education, said in an interview on Tuesday that creating an income tax credit for corporations and individuals would mean less funding for public schools in Utah, adding that “our funding rate is the lowest in the nation.”
In addition to taking away needed funding from public education, Wilson said the bill would create scholarship granting organizations “that are really businesses.”
“And I just don’t think that we need to be in the business of making distribution of our education dollars turned into a business,” Wilson said.
Wilson said she was also concerned that, unlike the state’s Carson Smith Scholarship Program, the bill would “open up non-tuition expenses” for students, such as educational therapy and textbooks, and that this money could go directly to parents.
“Which is concerning for all of us in education,” she said. “Because how do we account for those dollars when they’re going directly to a parent?”
Supporters of efforts to create the tax credit include Connor Boyack, president of the Lehi-based Libertarian think tank Libertas Institute, who criticized Herbert’s decision to veto the bill.
“These types of programs for special needs students have been very successful in other states like Arizona and Florida,” Boyack said in a blog post on April 1. “Utah families need these kinds of opportunities for their special needs children in order to provide the best education possible.”