The Utah Senate gave preliminary approval Wednesday to legislation that will provide $8,000 scholarships to qualifying families for private schools and other private education services and give licensed educators a $6,000 compensation bump.
The Senate debated the bill for nearly 50 minutes before voting 20-8 to approve it. The vote was mostly split along party lines, with two Republicans joining the six Democrats in opposing it.
A final vote is scheduled for Thursday, said Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton.
Utah Education Association President Renée Pinkney said members of the state’s largest teachers association are carefully monitoring the legislative process with respect to HB215.
“If it passes tomorrow, we will be devastated. Our hearts will be broken,” she said.
UEA members are “incredibly upset” that the salary increase was not decoupled from the choice scholarship so each could be considered on their respective merits, she said.
“They’re also incredibly upset with the process, that it has just been pushed through so fast. It’s almost as if the legislators were being asked to vote for something that they didn’t really have time to go through and understand. It’s a very long bill,” she said.
Regardless of what happens, it’s early in the 45-day legislative session and there are a host of other education bills that UEA leaders are tracking, Pinkney said.
“We can’t wring our hands. We have to roll up our sleeves, get to work and then think about what are our opportunities moving forward if they have the referendum-proof vote, and it passes,” she said.
Laws that pass by a two-thirds majority in both the Utah House and Utah Senate are not subject to a referendum.
The bill passed the House last Friday after it was fast-tracked from the customary process. After being approved by a Senate committee on Monday, the bill was debated and voted on in the Senate two days later.
Senate Majority Assistant Whip Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, Senate floor sponsor of HB215, said following the vote that the scholarship fund “wouldn’t even meet 5,000 kids statewide, so the immediate effect on public school, in my view, won’t even be felt, really. What will be felt and what has been overlooked is the teacher pay increase, which I understand is the largest teacher pay increase in the state of Utah.”
“So my hope is that as the dust settles, that is what’s felt,” Cullimore said.
During the Senate debate, Cullimore said the bill “is not an indictment in any way on the public education system. This bill is not about private education versus public education. I am convinced that there can be a win-win situation in our state where we can continue to fund, support and grow public education, while also providing an opportunity for every child that may need to find more unique circumstances for their education.”
The bill creates the Utah Fits All Scholarship, which can then be used for education expenses like curriculum, textbooks, education, software, tutoring services, micro-school teacher salaries and private school tuition, Cullimore said. State funding for the program’s inaugural year is capped at $42 million.
“We have worked tirelessly to ensure that the bill has the necessary guardrails and protections in place for parents, students, private schools and homeschool families,” he said.
Following the vote, Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, said Wednesday’s Senate action was “frustrating,” especially considering superintendents from across the state, along with the UEA, Utah PTA and Utah Eagle Forum, all oppose the bill.
“There is very little support for this bill outside of this body,” Riebe said. “It’s frustrating because we have so much time left in this session this could be worked on.”
“It’s disappointing as a teacher, and it’s disappointing as a senator,” she said.
Sen. Karen Kwan, D-Taylorsville, attempted to substitute the bill to split the scholarship program from teacher compensation, but the motion failed.
“Many educators said that they feel like pawns in some sort of strategy to pass the scholarship. I don’t think this message is fair to teachers who already feel overburdened, and I also don’t think it’s fair to the sponsors and to my colleagues, because this is not, I do not believe, the intent of putting them together,” Kwan said.
Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, proposed an amendment over concerns about potential discriminatory acts at private schools, which are prohibited under federal law at any school that accepts federal funding.
“I don’t think we want our state monies to have anything to do with discrimination against children,” she said. The amendment was defeated on a voice vote.
Responding to questions about accountability, Cullimore said parents who accept the scholarship must either submit their child’s portfolio to the scholarship manager or have them take standardized assessments.
Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden, a former president of a public university, said the fundamental issue with the bill is that every child learns differently.
“We need to have multiple opportunities for kids so we can find the best setting for them to reach their full potential,” she said.
As the Senate debated HB215, teachers and students at some Salt Lake schools wearing #RedForEd T-shirts, walked out of school for 15 minutes in protest of the bill.
About 20 teachers walked out of West High School to protest public money being used for private education choices.
“My raise shouldn’t be dependent upon private school choice. They aren’t connected,” said one educator, Rilee Pickle.
“I do believe parents have the right to choose where their kids go to school, but I don’t believe that they should be sponsored to go to private schools or homeschool with public funds. That’s money that belongs to public schools,” said Pickle, speaking on her own behalf.
Another educator said she was disappointed the Senate adopted none of the proposed amendments or a substitute bill.
“Instead, the Senate decided that they do not want to equitably fund public education and protect our most vulnerable students. As a public school teacher, I will continue to uphold the ethical and professional standards of my license and in turn continue to serve all populations and legally accommodate a wide range of diverse and brilliant learners —something that parents would have to waive in accepting this voucher,” said Nicole Wilson Steffes, speaking on her own behalf.
HB215, sponsored by Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, is a sea change in Utah education policy in that it expands the use of public money for private education choices far beyond existing programs for families of children with disabilities.
In 2007, 62% of Utah voters repealed a school voucher law enacted earlier that year. The multimillion-dollar political campaign pitted teachers’ unions nationally against school choice advocates.
No universal choice legislation had passed the legislature in succeeding years. HB215 appears to be on track not only to pass but to be approved by a margin that could not be challenged by a referendum, although one or two flipped votes would open the door to that possibility.
“As a government teacher, I know that you have to get a lot of signatures in every single Senate district so that would be a pretty heavy lift. I think their strategy is that they want to make it referendum proof. If the vote stays the same tomorrow as it was today, then that is referendum proof,” Pinkney said.
Opponents of HB215 have argued that Utah’s public education system is underfunded and tax money should solely support public schools. Some lawmakers who represent rural Utah oppose the bill because there is a dearth of private education options off the Wasatch Front and the bill would primarily benefit families in urban areas.
But proponents say their children have not succeeded in Utah’s public schools and they want the option of private education services. Pierucci has said the $42 million attached to the bill will prioritize the needs of low- to middle-income students, offering around 5,000 scholarships starting the 2024-2025 school year.
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the Utah Senate Minority Leader was misidentified as Luz Robles. She is Luz Escamilla.