The legislature is an institution of representative democracy wherein lawmakers usually reflect the views of constituents. But this branch of government also reflects deeper political trends. We examine a few noteworthy examples.

The Legislature recently passed, by overwhelming majority, HB215 Third Substitute — Funding for Teacher Salaries and Optional Education Opportunities. In addition to providing pay raises to teachers, the legislation also establishes education savings accounts to be used for private education, online programs, home schooling, etc. This is a remarkable change from when lawmakers approved a voucher program in 2007, which was then rejected by almost two-thirds of voters in a referendum. What caused the shift? 

Pignanelli: “Nearly 90% of America’s school-aged children attend local, district-run public schools. Suddenly it’s no longer unthinkable this paradigm might be challenged.” — Robert Pondiscio  American Enterprise Institute   

History documents serious episodes of disease alter the structure and mores of society. The 1918-1919 pandemic brought us the “Roaring ’20s,” a culture very different from 10 years before. Another effect of the coronavirus pandemic is now revealed.

Closure of public schools in 2020 and 2021 fostered frustration with once revered educational institutions among many parents. Further, the enhanced use of technology and changing work patterns created reassessments of traditional structures. These emotions opened the doors for unprecedented acceptance of concepts behind HB215. (Some polls indicated over 60% of Utahns approved.)

In 2007, proponents rammed the voucher legislation through the Legislature. Conversely, proponents of the 2023 legislation were sensitive to concerns and shrewdly attached significant pay raises for teachers. Also, an educational account controlled by parents is less objectionable than vouchers that directly fund other organizations.

Opinion: Voters rejected school vouchers in 2007. Have public feelings changed?

Bill sponsor Rep. Candice Pierucci deserves recognition as a formidable advocate with a strong command of the facts and amenable style. (Of course, she documented good judgment by marrying an Italian).

We are all happy the pandemic is behind us, yet the effects of this traumatic time will continue to offer surprises.

Webb: School choice legislation has been gaining momentum across the country for several years. Utah was actually behind many other states in allowing state funding to follow students as they and their parents choose their schools or education practices. Before this year, lawmakers had been leery of taking on the education establishment, given the big setback in 2007.  

But education choice is now more popular with the public than in the past. And this year, with a lot of money available to provide a large (and deserved) pay raise for teachers, lawmakers pulled the trigger and set aside $42 million for the program, coupled with the pay raise. The governor did not object.

So, it’s a done deal. The only way it will be overturned is if opponents undertake a very expensive and difficult initiative campaign to enact a law repealing the program.

Perspective: The pandemic changed the way we view education

As a big supporter of neighborhood public schools, where all my children were educated, I’m not worried that public schools will be harmed. And the pay raise will really help teachers. Don’t believe the rhetoric that it’s going to destroy public education. The vast, vast majority of Utah students will still be educated in their good neighborhood schools.

Yes, a public school will lose a little money if a student leaves for a private school, but the school also doesn’t have to educate that student. The funding issue is actually a wash and even favors public schools if they retain local funding for students who leave.

Let’s try school choice for a while. Giving parents flexibility is a good thing. 

The Democratic legislative leadership team is all female. Further, Senate and House minority leaders are women of color. What is the significance and ramifications of this historic development. 

Pignanelli: Veteran observers of the Legislature were not surprised by this announcement. All eight women are strong, competent lawmakers who advanced various interests despite large obstacles. In the first two weeks of this session, they mounted strong and credible opposition to controversial issues. Yet, they are willing to promote bipartisan objectives. Utah is evolving, and the presence of these legislators provides a voice.

Webb: As an old guy surrounded by strong women (one wife, five daughters and five older sisters), I’m all in favor of women taking over the world. It will be a better place, especially if the ascension of women and minorities is merit based.

This Legislature has deliberated and determined positions on high-profile issues within the session’s first few weeks. Usually, such controversies are considered towards the end of a session. What is fostering this change?

Pignanelli: Legislative leadership has endured many political battles. A perception of “last minute” activities (whether true or not) can harm public approval of major changes. Further, appropriations must be decided at the end. Thus, early consideration of other issues frees time for those budget deliberations. Experience and wisdom is the rationale for such an approach.

Webb: When you have a to-do list, with some hard tasks and some easy tasks, it makes sense to tackle the tough ones early so they’re not hanging over you all day. Also, these controversial matters won’t dominate news coverage the entire session and detract from other key issues.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semiretired small farmer and political consultant. Email: Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: