Multiple state lawmakers on Monday disavowed comments by a prominent backer of the school choice bill saying she wanted to "destroy public education" in a recording that circulated online.
Allison Sorensen, the executive director of Education Opportunity 4 Every Child, a major player in the push for school vouchers, apologized for the comments on Monday evening. Sorensen is registered as a lobbyist for the state of Utah.
In the recording posted on Twitter, Sorensen can be heard saying that she wants to "destroy public education" and insinuates that lawmakers do too. The recording was posted on social media Sunday night and was being widely circulated just a few hours before HB215 passed the Utah House on Monday afternoon.
"Let's actually take the money out of the public school system," Sorensen said in the audio. "We'll change the way we fund the program so that it literally is pulling that money straight from the school."
"I can't say this is a recall of public education even though I want to destroy public education," she added. "The legislators can't say that because they'll just be reamed over the coals."
Prior to those comments, Sorensen was asked if teachers' unions are going to argue that teachers will lose their jobs if the bill passes.
"Of course, they will," she said. "They're just going to say that no matter what I do, even though I'm giving them a pay raise. They're still going to put a gun to your head and take your taxes, and the (Utah Education Association) is still going to come to them and say give me the damn money. And so, until you take your money back, they don't care."
Sorensen apologized for the recorded remarks in a statement to KSL on Monday evening.
"I apologize for my thoughtless and inappropriate comments. I should not have made them," she said. "My remarks as an individual should not be interpreted to represent any organization, the Legislature, or the tens of thousands of Utahns who are asking for more education opportunities for their families and communities. Like any other mom, I want every child in Utah to have access to an education that helps them thrive."
Senate sponsor Kirk Cullimore said Sorensen and her group are one of "many" stakeholders he has worked with on the bill.
Cullimore said Sorensen's views are "not reflective of me or the Legislature" and that there is a "real motivation" to continue to support education.
"My job as a legislator is to help those with maybe extreme points of view, moderate that and get it to a point where we can pass the bill," Cullimore said, referencing the large amount of opposition and support for the bill. "We are trying to strike a right balance."
Senate President Stuart Adams also told reporters, "That group doesn't speak for the Legislature."
House sponsor Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, said the purpose of the bill is to increase teacher compensation and empower parents with the ability to "customize their child's learning experience to meet their educational needs, particularly for our low-income and middle-class families."
"This misguided and inaccurate statement by one of the individuals supporting this policy in no way reflects my opinion, or the opinions of the many legislators, teachers, parents, grassroots organizations, and citizens who support HB215," Pierucci said about Sorensen's comments.
"I believe in our public education system and am committed to continuing to invest and support our teachers and students," Pierucci said.
Alliance for a Better Utah released a statement on the audio and started an online petition calling on Utahns and Utah's elected officials to condemn her comments.
"Utah's politicians should be transparent with Utah parents. HB215, as outlined by Allison Sorensen, takes money out of public schools and is only a first step in undermining our public education system. We call on lawmakers to do everything they can to strengthen our schools, support our teachers, and prepare our children for the future, not destroy public education," the statement said.
Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, responded to the tweet of the audio to ask the backstory of the video. The original poster was Lisa Logan, a woman who runs a YouTube channel titled Parents of Patriots. Logan responded to McKell to say the video was of Sorensen at a public meeting for the Utah Fits All school choice campaign.
"To say it concerns me is probably an understatement. Stating an intention to 'destroy' public education is significant and troubling," McKell said on Twitter.
McKell told KSL NewsRadio he thinks Sorensen should resign. "It was offensive, it was inappropriate. A person like that should not have a seat at the table," he said.
Although Sorensen is working with some lawmakers on concepts and programs with the voucher bill, McKell said he doesn't think any legislators share the same view of public education that she has.
"My colleagues up here really do want to make sure that we provide a good education for our kids," McKell said.
The comment is giving the Utah Senate a chance to "look under the hood" and examine intentions behind the bill, he said. McKell said he has a few concerns about transparency and accountability with the bill and is looking forward to more conversation and dialogue on it in the Senate.
Sen. John Johnson responded to the audio on Twitter saying, "I don't know anyone in the senate or house that wants to destroy public education. This is unfortunate and concerning but Candice is the spokesperson for her bill."
Orem resident Alyssa May tagged Rep. Trevor Lee and asked if he believes his constituents are in favor of destroying public education. Lee responded by saying, "I'm not aware of a single legislator, who wants to destroy public education. Nor does this bill do that."
The Utah House Democratic Caucus released a statement on the passage of HB215 in the House.
"We are disappointed to see the passage of HB215. Our children are the cornerstone and future of our state and their education should be one of our foremost priorities. Over 90% of Utah's school-age children attend public schools."
"This bill puts taxpayer dollars that could be meaningfully invested into our public schools into exclusive and unregulated private schools without any accountability. As Utah House Democrats, we are passionate about ensuring our incredible public school teachers have their pay increased. Teacher pay should not be tied to the passage of a school voucher program. Our teachers and our children deserve better."