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Governor signs education funding bill for teacher raises and school choice

Feb 08, 2023 03:17PM ● By Becky Ginos

Senate leadership talks to the media after HB215 passed out of the Senate Jan. 26. The bill was signed by the governor Jan. 28. Photo by Becky Ginos

SALT LAKE CITY—A controversial bill that provides $8,000 scholarships to qualifying families for private schools and a $6,000 pay raise to teachers passed through both the House and Senate last week and was signed by the governor on Jan. 28.

HB215 caused a debate about whether taxpayer money should be diverted from public schools into private schools. The bill is intended to give parents a choice in education. Senate Majority Assistant Whip Sen. Kirk Cullimore sponsored the bill. 

“I’m ecstatic the bill passed,” he said during media availability following the vote. “To get the support from the House and Senate is thrilling.”

This won’t be implemented for about a year and a half so that gives us an opportunity to look at this and fine tune it, said Cullimore.

“Many states have done this and been very successful,” said Senate President Stuart Adams. “We’re getting good ideas from them. The bill is crafted after those states.”

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights voiced her concerns about the bill. “I’m a veteran teacher,” she said. “I think it needs a lot more accountability and transparency. Teachers will enjoy the raise short term but the long-term impact to the education system is alarming to me.”

“We have a lot of children per capita in Utah,” said Minority Leader Sen. Luz Escamilla. “We value children and families. Public education is what historically has made us different from other countries in the world. It is the great equalizer for the American dream. We want to make sure what we do in the legislature works because these are taxpayer funds. I think accountability is critical so we need to find that accountability balance.”

“This is really important to the education community,” said Rep. Melissa Ballard, R-North Salt Lake. “When vouchers came up I always voted against it. With HB215 I concluded there were enough votes to pass it.”

There’s no question it wasn’t popular in the public sector, she said. “The question is ‘what do we do now?’ It allows students to straddle between private and public education.”

It will provide more academic and financial accountability, said Ballard. “It will be a separate bank account that is audited and there will be a state assessment that the school has to show proof of progress. Homeschools don’t have to show anything right now.”

HB215 is what it is, she said. “Whether you like the process or not we have to decide ‘what now?’ The public education system needs to go to work.”

The Democratic Caucus was also opposed to the bill and released this statement: “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 percent 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.”

“This bill strikes a good balance,” said Gov. Cox in a statement after signing the bill. “More than 90 percent of parents support Utah schools and so do we. Our top priority this session has been a significant increase in teacher compensation and education funding. We commend the legislature for supporting our teacher pay proposal which will help address the state’s teacher shortage and give Utah teachers the much-needed pay raise they deserve. We also appreciate that HB215 gives Utah parents additional options to meet the needs of their families. School choice works best when we adequately fund public education and we remove unnecessary regulations that burden our public schools and make it difficult for them to succeed. We are especially appreciative of our teachers and education leaders who helped push for more accountability measures which were not included in the original bill.” 

HB215 passed by a two-thirds margin in both the House and Senate making it so it can’t be challenged by referendum.

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