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Opinion: Are Utahns ready for a voucher-like school program?

In 2007, the Legislature passed a voucher bill that led to an overwhelming referendum to overturn it. Has 15 years really changed anything?

SHARE Opinion: Are Utahns ready for a voucher-like school program?
An anti-voucher group talks to reporters in 2007, before voters overturned a state voucher law.

The anti-voucher group Utahns for Public School talk with members of the media in front of their yellow school bus in 2007. Voters overwhelmingly overturned a voucher law that year. Now, lawmakers are proposing a Hope Scholarship program that would provide public funds for some private school students.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The 2022 general legislative session is almost over, and the activities of our lawmakers are giving politicos much to argue about. We review some of the hottest items on the hill.

The Legislature has engaged in earnest debate over HB331, the Hope Scholarship Program. Because this legislation would fund education of children outside the public school system, it is viewed as taxpayer-subsidized vouchers. The bill barely passed committee and is awaiting debate in the full House. Gov. Spencer Cox said he supports vouchers philosophically but not while public education is underfunded. What does the governor’s veto threat mean and what is the fate of this proposal?

Pignanelli“Don’t hide from the past. It will not catch you if you don’t repeat it.” — Pearl Bailey

Apparently, 15 years is the radioactive half-life of controversial issues. In 2007, the Legislature barely passed, and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. approved, legislation establishing a voucher system. In response, teacher and parent associations organized volunteers to gather enough signatures for a statewide referendum to repeal the law. After a summer of contentious debate (LaVarr and I had spirited discussions) 62% of Utahns voted to reject vouchers.

Many wonder why the issue is returning. The gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, combined with the expulsions of three San Francisco school district board members, indicate serious trends. Parents dealing with pandemic-caused school closures are frustrated with the public system.

But Cox’s perspective is perhaps beyond teacher salaries. Our state is enduring arguments over vaccination/mask mandates, water shortages and population growth. Questions exist as to the timeliness of this fight.

Supporters can pass the bill and try their luck with a veto override session. Another option is to spend a year persuading citizens to the cause (a well-crafted website already exists).

How voucher supporters learn from the past may determine future success in Utah.

Webb: I’m a big fan and supporter of public schools, and I believe the vast majority of Utah children will attend public schools long into the future. All of my children attended public schools, as do my grandchildren.

I come from an education family with sisters, brothers-in-law and daughters who taught or teach in public schools. I believe we should increase spending per pupil, and pay teachers at a valued and respected professional level, like law or medicine. If we were at only the national average spending per pupil, we could have the best system in the country and the best outcomes for students. 

But I still believe there’s a place for vouchers, for money to follow the children — if done right. Vouchers should be means-tested on a tiered basis so low-income families benefit the most. Voucher amounts should be less than current per-pupil funding, so when a child leaves the public system, some money remains. That way, no one can claim that vouchers are hurting funding for public education because the public system doesn’t have to educate a child, but gets to keep some of that child’s per-pupil funding. The public system comes out ahead.

Parents who send their children to private schools actually subsidize the public school system. They pay income taxes (which fund public education) like everyone else, but also pay private school tuition, and the state system doesn’t have to educate their children. Wealthy people can pay for both, but lower-income people ought to be able to keep some of the money they pay for education to send their child to a private school if they wish. 

Utahns really like their neighborhood public schools. There won’t be a mass exodus. Most public schools can compete just fine, and those that can’t will improve because of the competition. Many other states are way ahead of Utah on vouchers.

We ought to fund public education appropriately and then allow parents some choice in where their children are educated.

Much media attention has been focused on legislation to eliminate Utah’s death penalty. Some conservative organizations and prosecutors have announced support for such a prohibition. Many insiders believed it had a real chance to pass. But the bill died in committee. Why and what does this signify?

Pignanelli: The legislation was sponsored by well-respected attorneys with bona fide conservative credentials, Rep. Lowry Snow and Sen. Dan McCay. Proponents were armed with impressive facts including the costs of litigation, execution of innocent individuals and harm to victims’ families. Polls indicated some support.

But opponents countered if a judicial system wrongfully condemns individuals, it should be reformed first. Others felt the ultimate penalty provides options to prosecutors for negotiation. Combined with the increased fear of crime, the constituent base for removing the death penalty remains limited.

Webb: Sorry, but I can’t get comfortable repealing the death penalty. When it comes to premeditated, heinous, aggravated murder involving rape, torture and mutilation of totally innocent victims, especially small children, I guess I’m an Old Testament kind of guy.

Last week, lawmakers announced big revenue surpluses — again. But there is also real fear of a coming economic downturn. How do these conflicts-of-expectations impact legislative deliberations?

Pignanelli: A real concern of economic problems in the near future will likely compel lawmakers to restrict ongoing commitments while placing additional funds in reserve.

Webb: We live in a very uncertain world. Invest one-time surplus income wisely in reserves and basic infrastructure.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Email: frankp@xmission.com.