SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) — The Utah Legislature has passed a controversial bill that would give teachers pay raises but also open up a voucher program that could funnel some taxpayer dollars to private schools.

H.B. 215 passed out of the House last week and was approved by the State Senate this morning with a vote of 20-8. The bill will now head to Gov. Spencer Cox’s desk, where it is expected to be signed into law. The bill passed both houses (Including the Utah House 54-20) with a supermajority, making them referendum-proof, making the bill unable to be overturned by law.

The bill has faced tough scrutiny by educators, many of whom have outright opposed the bill, claiming it would weaken public education by allowing public funds to be used as a scholarship for charter schools or homeschooling. However, the bill will also give an annual salary increase of $4,200 in pay and $1,800 in other compensation for teachers.

The bill will use over $42 million in income tax for the raises and to fund the Utah Fits All Scholarship Program, which will kick in for the 2024-2025 school year. Eligible students in grades K-12 would receive an $8,000 scholarship. Parents may begin to apply for the program in March of next year. Parents, particularly homeschoolers, who wish to continue participating will have to submit a new application and a report annually under the current version of the bill. Children already in private schools are eligible.

How Utah’s state senators voted on the bill (ABC4 / Glen Mills)

Rep. Candice Pierucci (R-Herriman), who introduced the bill, explained that roughly 5,000 students will be allowed to take part in the program next year.

“Broken down that is less than 4 students/school across the state,” she stated on Twitter earlier this week. “…The Utah Fits All program is less than 1% of the entire state budget for education, and less than half a percent of the total education spending, based off last year’s numbers.”

Libertas Institute President Connor Boyack, whose think tank backed the bill, said on Twitter earlier this week that the bill will help families make their own choices.

“This bill will empower families to direct the taxpayer investment in their kids’ education instead of having only one option to utilize it,” said Boyack. “More options are always better.” On Tuesday, he tweeted: “There’s a reason why homeschooling has TRIPLED across the country—millions of parents are realizing that the government schools won’t help their children adequately.”

Opponents of the bill, however, have called it the first step in dismantling public education in Utah. In fact, the head of Education Opportunity 4 Every Child Allison Sorenson was captured on tape saying she wanted to “destroy public education.” She later apologized for her comments. The Utah State Board of Education voted 10-5 Monday to oppose the bill, and it was also opposed by the state’s school superintendent’s association, the state’s school board associations and the teachers’ union, despite the built-in pay raises.

The bill was also roundly opposed by Utah Democrats, who responded this morning below:

As Democrats, we oppose all efforts to divert taxpayer dollars away from our public school system, our educators, and children. H.B. 215 fails to support students and weakens public education by redirecting public funds to private institutions without any safeguards, protections against discrimination, and transparency. In an attempt to mitigate these issues, Democrats proposed several commonsense solutions to H.B. 215. Additionally, we will always advocate for salary increases and respect for our teachers who work diligently to enrich and develop the minds of our children. We 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. We will continue to fight for a strong public education system to support all Utahns.

Utah Democratic Party, via press release, 1/26/23