Newly introduced legislation would allow parents to direct state funds designated for their child’s education to private schools and service providers.

Senate Majority Whip Kirk Cullimore said the Hope Scholarship is intended to give families more educational choices and provide the highest amount of financial assistance to people with the lowest incomes.

Under HB331, funding tiers would be tied to the federal poverty guidelines and “a portion of this fund must go to the lowest-tiered income qualification,” said Cullimore, R-Sandy, who is the bill’s Senate sponsor.

He refers to households whose incomes are 200% of the federal poverty guidelines or less.

That means a family of four who earns $55,500 or less annually, would qualify for a scholarship per child that is twice the value of the weighted pupil unit, which was raised to $3,908 earlier in the legislative session to address enrollment growth and inflation. That means they could receive a scholarship of at least $7,800.

A family of four whose annual household income is 555% of the federal poverty guidelines — $152,625 — would also be eligible for a scholarship of $2,931, supposing the WPU is valued at $3,908. It likely will be higher as Utah lawmakers’ budget deliberations are still underway.

The bill seeks a $36 million appropriation for the program’s inaugural year and would require the Utah State Board of Education to contract with a scholarship granting organization no later than Oct. 1.

The scholarships would be available starting in the 2023-24 school year.

“With the climate over the past couple of years, I think there’s been a shift in what people think should be possible for their kids, (their) education and whether or not state dollars should follow that,” Cullimore said.

While the bill does not use the term voucher, organizations that represent Utah educators describe it as such and oppose HB331.

Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews said the association has long opposed voucher or voucher-like bills. UEA led out on a state referendum in 2007 to overturn school voucher legislation passed by the Utah Legislature earlier that year. Sixty-two percent of Utah voters voted to support the repeal.

“Here they go again. … This legislative session has already seen attempts to target our overburdened educators with bills calling into question their professional integrity and adding to their workload. Our educators are drowning and quickly losing hope in the profession they once loved. Now, we have a school voucher bill giving backhanded criticism to the work of our public school educators by saying parents need other ‘choices.’ Our teacher and students need hope, not private school scholarships,” Matthews said.

The American Federation of Teachers Utah, meanwhile, said HB331 would be an “irresponsible use of funding.”

“AFT Utah is opposed to school vouchers,” said Brad Asay, president of AFT Utah.

“Parents and families currently have options to enroll their students in our public schools, private schools or choosing to homeschool their children. Using public education funds to provide scholarships for enrollment in private schools is a misappropriation of taxpayers’ dollars that are set aside to support our public schools in Utah,” he said.

Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, sponsor of HB331, said the legislation is not an indictment of the public education system.

“I think public education is fantastic. I’m a product of it. But what I do think we acknowledge is that parents need to have more tools in their tool belt, and be empowered to make those decisions for their kids,” she said.

Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, talks in the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

UEA has data that shows “parents are overwhelmingly satisfied with their neighborhood school. We have 90% or more of our students in Utah attending a neighborhood public school,” Matthews said.

“We value accountability and transparency. Yet, vouchers and voucher-like schemes divert funds away from public schools to private providers who have little or no taxpayer accountability,” she said.

While the sponsors said they are aware that voters overturned the last large-scale voucher legislation in Utah in 2007, they said they believe the political climate is vastly different in 2022.

In 2020, for instance, 54% of Utah voters supported Amendment G, which allowed the Utah Legislature to use revenue from income taxes and intangible property taxes to support children and individuals with disabilities.

HB357, companion legislation to the resolution that placed the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot, statutorily requires legislators to fund enrollment growth and inflation and provides a safety net to protect education funding during economic downturn and other unforeseen circumstances.

“The fact that public education has all this guaranteed growth and expansion, the conversation’s a little bit different because it’s less threatening, if you will, to the public education fund,” Cullimore said.

Pierucci and Cullimore point to a recent Dan Jones & Associates poll released by House leaders that asked 814 Utahns whether they would support or oppose legislation “that would allow parents to use the tax dollars designated for their child’s education to send their child to the public or private school.”

According to the results released by House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, 69% of those polled indicated their support while 27% oppose the legislation and 4% don’t know. The poll’s methodology was not released.

Matthews said she was concerned about the well-being of Utah teachers coming into the session after enduring two successive school years impacted by COVID-19, public battles over curriculum and library books, the firestorm over critical race theory and the teaching of honest and accurate history.

“This is the time to support them, to trust them and to listen to their professional voices, not to add additional bureaucracy, additional work, additional considerations, especially on the topic of vouchers when we know how our public feels about them,” Matthews said.

Asay said public school employees and students are “once again ... being placed in the middle of political agendas that are sweeping across the country. AFT Utah will be working with our allies and other labor unions affiliated with the Utah AFL-CIO to fight against the implementation of this proposed legislation.”

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Pierucci said she believes parents are far more engaged in their children’s education than before the pandemic and the Hope Scholarship would give them more control over their family’s educational choices.

“Long gone are the days of empty public meetings and empty school board meetings. I think we have a much more engaged citizenry who has an appetite to be a part of the process. But I think even at a more micro-level, parents have more of an appetite to have more of a say in their kids’ education, and trying to tailor their curriculum, their educational experience to the needs of their students,” Pierucci said.

Pierucci said she believes that appetite will only grow.

“In fact, I think the more we create innovation within this space they will demand more of it,” she said. “That is the hope, right? That we’re really trying to be creative thinkers and finding different ways to meet the educational needs of our students in Utah.”

The Utah State Board of Education has not yet taken a position.

The bill is supported by Utah Parents United, which describes itself as a nonprofit organization run by unpaid parent volunteers that “educates and empowers parents to advocate for their children.”