The Utah Senate gave final passage to legislation that will provide $8,000 scholarships to qualifying families for private schools and other private education options and give licensed educators a $6,000 pay raise.

The Senate voted 20-8 Thursday to approve the bill, which now heads to the desk of Gov. Spencer Cox, who has said he would not veto the bill and is reviewing it now that it has passed, said communications director Jennifer Napier-Pearce.

The bill passed by a two-thirds margin in each legislative house, which means it cannot be challenged by referendum.

In floor debate, Senate Majority Assistant Whip Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, Senate floor sponsor of HB215, said the vast majority of school-aged children in Utah attend public schools and the Utah Legislature will continue to support educators and the public education system.

“With nearly 97% of our school aged kids participating in public education in some fashion, I really do believe that this is a good scholarship program that will serve those kids that need unique and individualized education and is not really going to have a very strong or meaningful effect on the public education system,” he said.

The Utah Senate Democrats, in a statement issued after the vote, disagreed.

“As Democrats, we oppose all efforts to divert taxpayer dollars away from our public school system, our educators, and children. HB215 fails to support students and weakens public education by redirecting public funds to private institutions without any safeguards, protections against discrimination and transparency,” it said.

The statement went on to say that Senate Democrats “are extremely disappointed in the policy tactic to entangle teacher salaries with vouchers — two issues that deserve separate consideration and meaningful input from taxpayers, educators, and parents.”

Senate Majority Assistant Whip Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, Senate floor sponsor of HB215, left, remarks about his bill while Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, listens at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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. State funding for the program’s inaugural year is capped at $42 million, Cullimore said.

Under the bill, the Utah Legislature will appropriate $196.9 million for the educator salary adjustment, which will be offered to teachers who hold Utah State Board of Education licenses or other professionals licensed by the Division of Professional Licensing such as social workers, psychologists or audiologists.

“More than 95% of our kids are still participating in public education and the Legislature needs to do what it can to continue to support our teachers and support the education system. I anticipate that that will be the case as is also demonstrated in the $200 million appropriated in this bill,” he said.

Following the vote, Cullimore said he was “ecstatic” over the bill’s passage.

“To get this kind of support we did both in the House and the Senate is really thrilling.”

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, who is a public school teacher, said the bill needed more accountability and transparency measures.

In the short term, Utah educators are going to enjoy the pay raise, she said, “but I think the long-term impacts to our education system are really alarming to me.”

A statement by the Utah Education Association, which opposed HB215 largely because it tied the voucher-like program to teacher raises, said it is “exploring every option available to overturn this damaging legislation that jeopardizes the future of public education.”

It noted an outpouring of emails, calls and text messages from educators and the public, yet lawmakers “fast-tracked” the bill in less than two weeks.

“It is clear that this was a well-coordinated effort that began before the session started,” it said.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, right, makes remarks as Senate Majority Assistant Whip Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, Senate floor sponsor of HB215, left, listens at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“As Utah’s largest professional educator association, our strength is our members. Together, we are powerful. United, we are strongest. With six weeks left in the legislative session, there are still many opportunities to pass critical legislation. Increased education funding is our top priority.”

The bill was also opposed by the Utah State Board of Education, Utah PTA, school superintendents, business administrators and school boards.

The Alliance for a Better Utah was pointed in its reaction to the passage of HB215, sponsored by Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton.

“Conservative lawmakers just robbed our neighborhood schools of $42 million. Private school vouchers have been and continue to be opposed by Utahns but these lawmakers are instead pursuing a national agenda to ‘destroy public education.’ As a result, our children, parents, and teachers will suffer as a foundational institution of our society is deprived of much-needed resources,” it said in a statement.

The alliance urged the governor to reconsider his support for HB215.

“Even with teacher raises, our public education system continues to be severely underfunded. We need to invest even more in our public schools and children’s futures, not siphon off taxpayer funds to private schools.”

HB215 represents 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. The Utah Fits All Scholarship program will serve close to 5,000 students its first year.

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 until lawmakers approved HB215.

Contributing: Kailey Gilbert 

Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, listens as senators vote on HB215 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News