Utah lawmakers reject school choice bill called Hope Scholarship

Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, listens as other Representatives discuss her bill, HB331, the Hope Scholarship bill, in the House of Representatives at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday.

Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, listens as other Representatives discuss her bill, HB331, the Hope Scholarship bill, in the House of Representatives at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Hope Scholarship bill was defeated in the House of Representatives on Monday, even after significant changes the legislation's sponsor said rendered it so it would not harm public education financially and would require recipients to take an annual norm-referenced assessment.

HB331, sponsored by Rep. Candice Pierucci, was rejected by a vote of 53-22.

"This new substitute language ensures that the WPU (weighted pupil unit) remains with the LEA (local education agency) even after a student has left and that ensures our public education system will be held harmless and, in fact, you're receiving more funding even after a student has chosen to find an alternative option for education," Pierucci said.

Under the legislation, the scholarship would be awarded by a scholarship granting organization selected by the Utah State Board of Education through the state's procurement process.

Households with lower incomes would be given enrollment preference as would those whose children had experienced bullying, cyberbullying or hazing, which was reported, documented and investigated.

Pierucci pointed to the recent deaths of Utah children who died by suicide after they were bullied at school, their respective families have said.

"We should absolutely be addressing bullying in our public schools, while also acknowledging that sometimes the best and safest option is to empower parents to get their child in a safe new educational environment," she said.

But some lawmakers spoke in opposition to the bill, with Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, questioning protections in the bill.

"I don't see even with the fifth substitute strong accountability measures here," he said. "If we expand this line item, this amount of money for this thing and public education, can we come back and say that it's benefiting children?"

Rep. Marsha Judkins, R-Provo, who also spoke in opposition, said there are broad choices in public education now. She questioned why when private schools offer scholarships that the state should "supplant those scholarships."

Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, supported the bill, particularly new language extending scholarship consideration to families whose children have experienced bullying at school.

"We heard from some parents who are desperate for an alternative for their child. As they watch their child's spiral into depression, but cannot afford other options their desperation increases. I appreciate the tremendous efforts of the public education system to respond to the individual needs. But that isn't always possible. And this very narrow approach addresses those who simply need another option and I urge my colleagues to support this bill," Lisonbee said.

House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, urged the House's support of the bill, explaining it will not harm public education, in fact it would benefit from it financially.

"I get it ... Many people do not like competition. Some people in the education system don't like competition. But this is good on so many levels for our schools and for our parents," he said.

Schultz said he was fortunate in that he and his wife were able to afford private alternatives for two of their six children.

"This bill is targeted at those that don't have that fortunate luxury. I ask this body to put yourself in those parents' shoes," he said.

Early versions of the bill were opposed by teacher associations, the state school board and associations representing school superintendents and local school boards.

Earlier in the legislative session, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said he would veto the legislation.

"I'm all in on vouchers. But we have a long way to go before we get there," Cox said. "I want to get there. I believe in vouchers. I can't wait to get there. But now is not the time."

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