OGDEN, Utah (ABC4) – “I think we have to look at education with a holistic approach and realize that we are still giving a funding increase to public education while also acknowledging that we’re also going to try an innovative program to give parents more options,” Utah State Representative Candice Pierucci told ABC4 while talking about House Bill 331.

The bill, also known as the Hope Scholarship Program, is drawing mixed reactions. ABC4 looks at the reason Rep. Pierucci is sponsoring the bill, what one parent is concerned about, and why the NAACP Ogden Branch opposes it.  

 “We have one of the highest rates of autism,” Stacy Bernal said. “It’s one in 58 eight-year-olds is diagnosed with autism in the State of Utah.” Bernal’s son was diagnosed with autism at nine years old and she explained that the family knew around the time he was three.  

He began participating in different programs around the age of three to help him adjust and react to the world around him. Years have passed and according to Bernal: “We never know from one day to the next, how he’s going to react to something. One day it could be that he’s totally fine and the next could be that it’s a complete and total meltdown.”  

Bernal’s son is now in public high school. Bernal told ABC4 that he is now thriving thanks to specialized programs and his teachers.  “They love him,” she added. “I know that they love him, and I know that they care about him, so when he leaves our home and is in their care, I know that he’s taken care of.” She said the family investigated private schools for her son. However, none met their child’s needs. She explained that as he transitioned into high school, having rotating classes would be sensory overload.  

She expressed her concerns to ABC4. She is worried those programs that allow him to do well in school may not survive if House Bill 331 is passed.   

Representative Candice Pierucci (R) from District 52 is the bill sponsor. She told ABC4 those programs should see no change to their funding if the bill is passed. She stated: “This is an educational savings account and so, we are anticipating a majority of people who use this will actually use it for home school expenses and micro schools.”  

Rep. Pierucci said the funds raised for the scholarship program will not be taken away from public schools. “If a student leaves mid-academic year, that WPU (the basic per pupil unit used to determine the amount of state funds allotted to a school district) amount stays with the school.”  

A family could use the scholarship program to help pay for private school tuition. This is part of the reason the NAACP Ogden Branch opposes the bill.   

“Nothing against private schools, but public money needs to stay in public schools,” NAACP Ogden Branch Executive Committee Member Angel Castillo (She/Her/Ella) told ABC4.  

Castillo explained that the NAACP also opposes the bill due to the history of school vouchers, in the South, after the Brown v. Board of Education court case.  She added: “Vouchers originate in a particular county closing all of their public schools and establishing private schools so that it would be race specific and not allow Black and brown kids.”  

While families could potentially use the program to help pay for private schools, Rep. Pierucci emphasized that it’s not a voucher bill. She also told ABC4 that aims to boost public education as well.   

“I absolutely believe we need to pay our teachers well,” she said. “I absolutely believe we need to fund our schools adequately and I also think we need to be trying different innovative approaches to give parents more tools because at the end of the day this is about our students.”  

Rep. Pierucci said funding for H.B. 331 would come through income tax revenue and be capped at $36 million dollars and said it would also give a five percent increase to public schools.  

According to Pierucci, they estimate only 9,000 students will be able use the program “and it also is means tested, so we’re focused on low-income families and then middle-class families in terms of the amount of the benefit.”  

Pierucci told ABC4 she is sponsoring the bill because many parents in her district began searching for different schooling options for their kids because of the pandemic.