Despite concerns about constitutionality and accountability, the House Revenue and Taxation Committee voted 6-5 Tuesday in support of HB331, the Hope Scholarship bill.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, would create a means tested scholarship that could be used for private school tuition, home-school pods and home schoolers. State funding would be capped at $36 million in the inaugural year of the program.
“We’re actually tying it to the United States federal poverty level ... so the greatest benefit would be to those individuals who are at or below 200% of the federal poverty line, and they would be able to receive roughly $7,800 in this scholarship as currently written,” Pierucci said.
Those with higher household incomes would also be eligible for scholarships, although lesser in amount. For instance, a family of four whose annual household income is 555% of the federal poverty guidelines — $152,625 — would be eligible for a scholarship of about $3,000 annually.
“It truly is having the money follow the student,” Pierucci said, although she clarified that “a homeschool parent cannot pay themselves as their child’s teacher.”
Under the bill, the Utah State Board of Education would select a scholarship granting organization through the state procurement process. The organization would award the first scholarship starting in the 2023 school year.
After public testimony that consumed much of the two-hour hearing, with some parents pleading for more education options for their children and others questioning the constitutionality of state scholarships being used at faith-based schools, the committee voted to send the bill to the full House for consideration.
Rita Heagren, vice president of political action for the American Federation of Teachers in Utah, said HB331 is a “voucher bill masquerading as a scholarship” that takes taxpayer money and sends it to private institutions.
“This is not the Utah way, where we have always supported our public schools. These private institutions may use our tax dollars to indoctrinate students with no public oversight into what is being taught. There would be zero transparency,” Heagren said.
Heagren also questioned if the scholarship would enable needy families to attend private schools “when the average cost of private school tuition in Utah is over $11,000 for elementary and $13,000 for high school. This voucher would not cover the student’s full expenses leaving the parents on the hook for a considerable portion of the funding.”
The bill was also opposed by Utah PTA, Utah School Boards Association, Utah School Superintendent Association and the Utah State Board of Education.
State deputy superintendent of policy Angie Stallings said Utah public schools offer many options for students such as charter schools, open enrollment, dual enrollment and the statewide online education program, among others.
“Students are able to enroll in two LEAs (local education agencies) at a time and so we have many options for choice and personalization,” she said.
Stallings said the legislation raises questions about whether the Hope Scholarship program would violate Article X Section 9 of the Utah Constitution, “which states that the state of Utah may not provide appropriations directly to a school or educational institution controlled by a religious organization.”
She also urged the committee to consider the impacts of the pandemic on Utah public school educators.
“Our education system has gone through so much this last year and really persevered through the pandemic. Now is the time to invest more in public ed and not divert those funds to private schools and homeschools,” she said.
Percy Pearson, who runs a nonprofit for youth and is a case manager who works for youths in state foster care, who are experiencing homelessness, urged support of the bill because Utah children are increasingly vulnerable.
“It’s to the point where every option needs to be on the table, every option because I’m on both sides of it. It needs to be on the table because private schools can give kids some opportunities that the public schools can’t and vice versa,” he said.
“I’m just here to say that I’m burying kids. I buried seven all under age 15 in the last three years. This is necessary. This isn’t to be taken lightly on both parties. I understand money matters but these kids’ lives matter more. That’s why I’m here,” Pearson said.
One parent questioned why the House Revenue and Taxation Committee was considering the bill, instead of the House Education Committee.
“Why did we go around the Education Committee where there are people qualified? You people are lovely and qualified and excellent but why are we not sitting in the committee where there’s teachers on the committee?” said Aimee Warren.
Some parents urged the committee’s support of HB331 because they found other options during the pandemic that better suited their children and they need financial help to continue those options.
Rev. Bobby Porter, who described himself as a product of public education, said “one stop shop does not work for everyone.”
The neighborhood school his daughter attended wanted to place her in a special education because she did not talk. Porter said he had the financial means to send her to private school and “she graduated with honors, she went on to graduate from Utah State with honors.”
Currently, she teaches special education in a public school.
“So what I’m saying to you is is this one shoe doesn’t fit everybody. But if we can be able to have two people come from private entities along with public entities, it will make our school much better. Thank you so much,” Porter said.
But others said HB331 raises concerns about transparency and accountability.
Linda Hanks, representing the state school boards’ and superintendents’ associations, said HB331 raises concerns about transparency and accountability.
“As locally elected school board members we partner with you, the Legislature and our state school board, in establishing funding and adequately governing our public schools,” Hanks said.
“We support parent choice and know the public dollars already follow the student within our public system, but we do not support those tax dollars being used for private providers,” she said.
Pierucci said there are at least 10 states with similar programs to the Hope Scholarship.
“As of 2020 there were 55 empirical studies on the fiscal impact of scholarship programs for taxpayers and public schools. And of those 55, 49 of those studies found that the programs save the state money and four found that they were revenue neutral,” she said.
Utah County Commissioner Amelia Powers Gardner, a mother of six children, said each of her children is unique. They’ve attended public schools, private schools and some have been homeschooled.
“We owe it to the children to find a system for each of them that works for them. Whether that’s home school, private school, public school or charter school. We need to serve the students,” she said.
Even before a single vote was cast on HB311, broadcast commercials paid for by Americans for Prosperity urging support of the Hope Scholarship were airing in Utah.
According to FactCheck.org Americans For Prosperity is a political advocacy group founded by the late David Koch.
“AFP has described itself as “an organization of grassroots leaders who engage citizens in the name of limited government and free markets on the local, state, and federal levels,” according to FactCheck.org.