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School choice, teacher raise bill now in hands of Utah Senate

Members of the public line up for comment during a House Education Committee hearing on HB215 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Jan. 19. The bill would create the Utah Fits All Scholarships, which would link a teacher salary increase to a “school choice” program.

Members of the public line up for comment during a House Education Committee hearing on HB215 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Jan. 19. The bill would create the Utah Fits All Scholarships, which would link a teacher salary increase to a “school choice” program. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Fernando Ruiz, a senior at St. Joseph Catholic High School in Ogden, said HB215 would have helped his family "massively."

"My family is not wealthy, far from it," Ruiz told members of the Utah Legislature Senate Education Committee on Monday.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, would provide $8,000 to qualifying families to pay for private education services for each of their children. The legislation seeks to give higher priority to low- or middle-income applicants. It also would provide a $6,000 compensation bump to public school educators.

Ruiz, who recently won the AP National Hispanic Recognition Award with a 3.9 GPA and high scores on multiple Advanced Placement exams, plans to be the first in his family to attend college.

"I hope that this bill is enacted to help the less fortunate get the education they need. This bill is nothing but a step in the right direction for our state's education and for our state's future," he told state lawmakers.

While the proposed Utah Fits All Scholarship would not benefit Ruiz, it would be a sea change in Utah education policy in that it would expand the use of public money for private education choices far beyond existing programs that help families of children with disabilities make private education choices.

In 2007, Utah voters soundly rejected a voucher program to let people choose to send their children to private schools by redirecting their tax dollars.

State lawmakers would appropriate $42 million for the inaugural scholarships proposed under HB215.

After a lengthy hearing on Monday, the Senate Education Committee voted 7-2 in support of the bill, sending it to the full Utah Senate for further consideration. Sen. Kathleen Riebe of Cottonwood Heights, the lone Democrat on the committee, and Sen. David Hinkins, R-Ferron, who represents a rural Senate district, voted no.

The bill sailed through the Utah House of Representatives in the first week of the legislative session, approved by a vote of 54-20 last Friday, despite opposition from the Utah Education Association and the professional associations of Utah school boards, superintendents and school business administrators.

The Utah State Board of Education held a rare 7 a.m. meeting Monday to debate and take a position on HB215. It voted 10-5 to oppose the bill.

Stacey Mollinet, president of Utah PTA, likewise expressed the organization's objections to the legislation.

"We cannot support the distribution up to $8,000 per student to education service providers with no oversight on teacher quality standards, assessment and accountability," Mollinet said.

"We are concerned that this program creates inequities for our rural students and are worried about new service providers being created in those areas with no accountability," she said.

Some in opposition said the bill was being fast-tracked. Riebe attempted to hold the bill in the Senate Education Committee to give more time to people who wanted to speak out about the legislation. The motion failed.

Barbara Thornton and her daughter Bonnie Thornton cheer at a rally against school vouchers at the Capitol in Salt Lake City, on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. Barbara also has another child with special needs and is a substitute teacher.
Barbara Thornton and her daughter Bonnie Thornton cheer at a rally against school vouchers at the Capitol in Salt Lake City, on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. Barbara also has another child with special needs and is a substitute teacher. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Emotional discourse

The legislation has stirred strong emotions among supporters and those who oppose the proposed Utah Fits All Scholarship.

Senate leaders spent part of their daily briefing with reporters addressing a leaked audio of a major proponent of HB215 who said the goal of the legislation is to take "money out of public schools."

According to a transcript released by the Alliance for Better Utah, Allison Sorenson, executive director of Education Opportunity 4 Every Child, and a major proponent behind Utah's school voucher bill, was overheard saying, "I want to destroy public education."

Better Utah's mission is "to drive a public narrative that empowers Utah's electorate and holds public officials accountable," according to its website.

There was no answer to telephone calls placed Monday to a phone number on Education Opportunity 4 Every Child's website nor was there a response to an email.

"Our vision is an education market where money follows children and not schools," its website states. Its "mission is to empower parents with high quality education options that fit every child's individual needs," according to the website.

But in a personal statement released late Monday night, Sorenson issued an apology for what she called "thoughtless and inappropriate comments."

"My remarks as an individual should not be interpreted to represent any organization, the legislature, or the tens of thousands of Utahns who are asking for more education opportunities for their families or communities. Like any other mom, I want every child in Utah to have access to an education that helps them thrive," Sorenson said.

Senate Majority Assistant Whip Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, who is Senate floor sponsor of HB215, told reporters that he had not heard the audio recordings but "I've been made aware of it."

Education Opportunity 4 Every Child is "one of the many stakeholders I've been working with," he said.

Cullimore said the comments were "not reflective of me or the Legislature, obviously," referring to the Legislature's $1.6 billion in new investment toward public education over the past seven years.

"There is a real motivation to continue to support public education," he said.

Passage of HB215 would also ensure $196.9 million in ongoing funding for the educator salary adjustment.

"My job as a legislator is to help those with maybe extreme points of view moderate that and maybe get it to a point where we can pass the bill. And that's what we're trying to do here," Cullimore said.

This past weekend, the Alliance for Better Utah launched a "Public Education Enemy #1" campaign sending 20,000 text messages to Cullimore's and Pierucci's constituents.

"The campaign informs Cullimore and Pierucci constituents of their work to gut $42 million from Utah's neighbor schools," a press release states.

@CandicePierucci responded on Twitter: "Not only is this tactic ridiculous and ineffective, it's irresponsible and not in compliance with the core values they profess to embody on their website. This kind of rhetoric cranks up the heat and increases the toxicity of public discourse. Do better, @betterutah."

School choice rally

Earlier in the day, hundreds of supporters of public school choice — among them Utah Gov. Spencer Cox — rallied at the capital in observance of "Utah School Choice Week"

"I talked to (legislators) about the next generation, making sure this is a better state for you than it was for your parents … That happens through education," the governor said.

School choice rallies across the country brought together school advocates of choice, whether public or private education options.

William Bressler, chief executive officer of Athlos Academy, a public charter school in Herriman, said he values school choice "because it puts the parent in the driver's seat of where their child should attend, what academics they should be studying, and what extracurriculars. So choice to me is making our parents the number one stakeholder in our nation's education."

Bressler advocated for the passage of HB215, describing himself as, "a champion of education."

He added, "I believe that parents should have a choice. If a parent would like to put their child in a school that is faith based … then they should be able to. I support the bills that fund private schools with public dollars."

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during a rally to support school choice, hosted by the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023.
Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during a rally to support school choice, hosted by the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Educators' opinions diverge

Principal Mike Lambson, principal of Mount Vernon Academy, a private school in Murray, spoke in favor of HB215.

"Our private school has filled the need of having a place for students that have not been able to succeed in public schools," Lambson told the Senate committee.

"Many of these students would have dropped out of public education if they did not have another option in which they could thrive. I know that hundreds or thousands of public school students that need a private school like ours have not had the opportunity because they have not been able to afford it ... and this bill would solve that problem and would level the playing field," he said.

He acknowledged the good that "many do in public education. I see this as a win-win."

Julie Beane, a special education teacher in Canyons School District urged committee members to vote no on HB215.

"This bill funnels taxpayer dollars into the private sector under the guise of improving pay for Utah teachers. This goes against fiscally conservative standards, in my opinion, to an alarming degree. There are claims that our public education system is broken. It's not broken, it is underfunded," Beane said.

Contributing: Katie McKellar, Kailey Gilbert

Lena Foster, a Salt Lake City School District teacher, attends a rally against school vouchers at the Capitol in Salt Lake City, on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023.
Lena Foster, a Salt Lake City School District teacher, attends a rally against school vouchers at the Capitol in Salt Lake City, on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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