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Bill creating school choice scholarship, funds for teacher salary bump passes House

Utah House passes HB215 that provides $6,000 pay raise for teachers, $8,000 for ‘optional education opportunities’

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Juan Diego students wear “I love my Fit” shirts during a House Education Committee hearing.

Juan Diego students wear “I love my Fit” shirts during a House Education Committee hearing about HB215 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. The bill would create the Utah Fits All Scholarships, which would link a teacher salary increase to a “school choice” program.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

A bill that creates a state-funded scholarship program allowing eligible parents to use $8,000 in state funds for private school, home schooling or other private educational options and also fund a $6,000 compensation increase for educators passed the Utah House of Representatives on a vote of 54-20 Friday.

The vote was largely along party lines, although some Republican legislators joined Democrats voting against the bill, with one rural lawmaker speaking in opposition because it likely would not benefit rural students due to a dearth of alternative education services off the Wasatch Front.

Rep. Doug Welton, R-Payson, who is an educator, said tying the pay raise for teachers to the school choice scholarship felt like “one of the largest bribes to pass funding,” but he ultimately voted for it.

House members rejected a substitute bill proposed by House Minority Leader Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, that would have decoupled the compensation from the scholarship program.

The legislation’s sponsor, Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, introduced third substitute HB215, which she said addressed concerns about funding and accountability raised during the bill’s hearing before the House Education Committee on Thursday.

Specifically, it would cap the state appropriation for the scholarships at $42 million. Scholarship recipients would submit a portfolio at the end of the academic year to highlight the work that they’ve completed or they can opt to take traditional assessments.

Partial scholarships could also be extended to students who attend public charter or district schools part-time to enable them to participate in a private educational opportunity.

The bill also protects against government overreach for homeschooling parents who elect not to participate in the scholarship program, she said.

“I believe that supporting education means supporting the best approach for educating each individual child and our state. So this bill works to emphasize a focus on individualized student learning and finding ways to give parents additional tools and options for their kids’ education,” Pierucci said.

Many states already have “robust school choice programs, empowering parents with more opportunities,” Pierucci said, noting “Utah is not leading out on this issue.”

She continued, “This bill is important because it signals to teachers and students that they matter most in our system.”

The program will benefit low- to middle-income families, Pierucci said.

Rep. Karen Peterson, R-Clinton, one of two Republicans who voted against the bill in committee, said capping the appropriation for the scholarship program allayed some of her concerns.

“In other states, we’ve seen some of these programs really balloon in costs, and I believe myself to be a fiscal conservative and I get nervous about growing costs,” she said.

Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, said in rural Utah, public schools are the center of the community and the vast majority of his constituents opposed HB215.

“I’m a firm believer that this bill has some good things, but I also feel like public money should stay in public schools,” he said.

The thrice substituted bill now moves to the Senate for further consideration. Both House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, advocated for the proposal in their opening day addresses to their respective chambers.