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Voucher changes get preliminary OK from Senate

The Senate Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a bill that would make some minor changes to the Parents for Choice in Education Act, the education voucher law that passed earlier this session.

HB174 would give the State Office of Education an additional $100,000 to run the voucher program, require teachers at schools where voucher students are enrolled to have background checks and require that the state perform an audit of the program in five years, instead of waiting seven years as required in the current law.

It also requires the state school board to make rules determining how incomes are determined and verified, and states that voucher recipients must assume full responsibility for cost associated with transportation to the private school.

"I was opposed to the original bill, but I am glad to see this body has listened to comments from those in education field — these amendments are an important step in safeguarding the funds of the state," said Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake.

Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, said many lawmakers received sharp criticism because of perceived insufficiencies in the original voucher bill, such as no verification requirements for a family's income or language that would determine the eligibly of private schools.

"This bill keeps faith with the promises that we have made and shows we are willing to protect the integrity of the state education system and safeguard the sacred funds of state and taxpayer," Bell said.

The private school voucher program provides Utah families a private school tuition voucher ranging from $500 to $3,000 per student, scaled to income based on who qualifies for federal reduced-price school lunch. It allocated $100,000 to the State Office of Education for oversight but leaders said more funding would be needed to develop and run the program.

The bill would give the state an additional $100,000, which would translate into two staff members overseeing the program. State education leaders say they plan to hunt for people to fill those positions as soon as they know exactly how much money they have to work with since they are on a tight timeline.

The immediate step will be drafting rules for implementation since under the law they must be established by May 15.