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SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah bill that would create a school choice scholarship (also being called a school voucher) and increase teacher salaries advanced to the full Senate on Monday as charter schools from around the state descended upon the state Capitol to celebrate school choice.
The bill passed out of the Senate Education Standing Committee on Monday afternoon after over two hours of hearing from folks on both sides of the debate and will be sent to the full Senate for a final vote.
The vote on the bill was 7-2, with Sen. David Hinkins and Sen. Kathleen Riebe casting the pair of votes against it.
Earlier, nearly 1,000 charter school students from Logan to St. George descended upon the Utah Capitol Rotunda on Monday to rally and advocate for school choice.
"Charter schools continue to grow year over year because parents want more choice. They want to match the education that their child gets with a specific school," said Royce Van Tassell, executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools.
This choice ranges from parents putting their children in hands-on Montessori schools, as well as schools with special focus on sports, performing arts and science or technology, among others.
The Utah Education Association held a press conference at the Capitol at 5 p.m. Monday, with those opposed to HB215 wearing red and chanting "Public money, public schools."
"Public money of public schools!" Chants ahead of a press conference in opposition of HB215. Happening now at the capitol. pic.twitter.com/LSpWCrJJzz— Utah Education Association (@myuea) January 24, 2023
Monday's earlier rally was timed to coincide with National School Choice Week, which will feature more than 26,000 school choice events across all 50 states to raise equal and positive awareness of the traditional public, public charter, public magnet, private, online and home education options available for families, according to a release from the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools.
The Utah Association of Public Charter Schools is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that describes itself as focused on promoting excellence in public charter schools throughout the state through advocacy, training and technical support.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox joined Monday's rally, voicing his support for school choice.
"When I spoke the other night to the Legislature, I talked to them about the next generation — making sure that our state is a better place for you than it is for your parents and grandparents," Cox said. "That happens through education. We know that education makes us better people. It will make you a better adult, it will help you to find a great job. Most importantly, it will help you to solve all of the problems that face us here in the state of Utah."
He emphasized the need for good teachers, adequate teacher pay and an overall "great" education system.
"The charter system helps us do that. You have choices that your parents have chosen that are making it better for you and your families," Cox said. "I just want you to know how much we love you, how much we love our charter schools and how much we are committed to making sure that we have the best education system in the world right here in Utah."
Cox also unveiled an official declaration, declaring Jan. 23 through Jan. 29. as Utah School Choice Week.
The rally and the first day of Utah School Choice Week coincidentally fell on the same day that the Utah State Board of Education called a special meeting to vote on HB215.
The board voted 10-5 to oppose the bill as it is currently written.
The bill would extend an $8,000 scholarship to qualifying families seeking private education services and a $6,000 bump in compensation to teachers.
"Some of the issues raised by board members include a lack of student data privacy, questions about program oversight and the process of drafting and debating the bill. Many members of the board also recognized frustration from educators and schools for not separating educator salary increases from the scholarship program," said a release from the board.
Interestingly enough, Van Tassell said that he and the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools "may be the only organization at the Capitol that are officially neutral (on HB215)."
Prior to the board's vote, Utah State Board of Education member Carol Lear, a Democrat, told KSL NewsRadio that if the board votes to oppose the bill, "it signals to the Legislature, whether it makes a difference or not, that the public education oversight body does not support sending public money to private schools, religious schools, (and) schools that don't have the same oversight that public schools do."
Lear said that the board wanted to vote on the bill to affirm to their education partners that they stand with them in opposition to the bill.
"(We want to tell) the local School Boards Association, PTA, UEA, all of the school districts, superintendents, that we stand with you. This will not be a good thing for local schools," Lear said.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, last week posted a Twitter thread arguing the benefits of a school voucher.
Yesterday was a historic day for the Utah House with the passage of HB 215! I wanted to clarify a few things and answer questions I've received about the bill.🧵— Candice B. Pierucci (@CandicePierucci) January 21, 2023
⭐️This bill does two important things… pic.twitter.com/8sMbqvxQZG
Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson on Monday also took to Twitter to voice his support for HB215, a bill he says strengthens the ability of teachers to commit to their students and parents being about to do what's best for students.
Lear said that her biggest "umbrella objection" to the bill is that "private schools will receive public money that should go to public schools."
"I (also) don't like that the teacher salary increase is just being shamelessly connected to the voucher," Lear said.
She added that the bill also gives the board the financial responsibility of managing and overseeing the scholarship program despite "zero discussion" with the board.
"It could be the board is being set up to crash and burn in terms of oversight," she said.
Lear also argued the bill allows for discrimination when determining who is prioritized to receive a scholarship.
"The only nondiscrimination measure in (the bill) only prohibits discrimination based on race, color, and national origin," Lear said. "They can discriminate against kids with disabilities, poor kids, based on gender; they could theoretically take all boys and no girls," she said. "They can discriminate against kids who have minor disciplinary problems and kids who have none at all."
In the release announcing the decision of the Utah State Board of Education's vote on the bill, the board said that it has compiled a list of questions and feedback that was sent to the bill sponsors last week.
"The board expressed its desire to continue partnering with the Legislature to provide insight on how the bill may be improved," the release said.
In an interview with KSL NewsRadio on Monday, Senate Majority Assistant Whip Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, a co-sponsor of HB215, said that he doesn't expect to see "any amendments in this particular bill, but there are some other bills that may address education and similar-type programs where we can make some changes per their recommendations and requests."
As far as separating educator salary increases from the scholarship program, a gripe voiced by the board in its vote to oppose HB215, Cullimore responded "probably not" when asked if there have been any considerations around separating the two.
"The messaging from the governor's office, whether it was his express intent or not, was that he's supportive of school choice if we can get teacher salary up to where it is," Cullimore said.
Contributing: Lindsay Aerts
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly described the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools rally as being in favor of HB215 when the stance taken by the organization on the bill is neutral.