Guest opinion: “Utah Fits All” intentionally mislabeled and misleading

Make it make sense! After the proposed “Hope Scholarship” voucher crashed and burned in the 2022 Utah legislature, Rep Pierucci is back with an even worse proposal this year.  House Bill 215, a “Utah Fits All voucher” scheme, is intentionally mislabeled as “Funding For Teacher Salaries and Optional Educational Opportunities.” This proposal hands out piles of tax payer cash to an independent contractorr to administer a voucher program with no meaningful oversight by the Utah School Board of Education.

Where to start? First, there is no legitimate justification for further fragmenting the educational options available in Utah – this is wasteful! Parents have lots of choices. Open enrollment and special permits within and between districts are wonderful. Charter options abound. Parents can already homeschool. Many already utilize private school options as well.

Worse, this voucher program ANTICIPATES fraud – it is mentioned directly and indirectly multiple times – and this should come as no surprise. As an incentive to take their students out of public schools, parents are being offered $8,000, more than DOUBLE the 2022 state contribution towards the WPU of $3,908 that funds students in public schools. The list of “allowable” expenses this voucher money can be spent on is broad and poorly-defined. Traditional schools have bookkeepers to keep a close eye on how money is spent. I should know – I routinely fill out paperwork with multiple complex budget codes for necessary expenses for my Social Studies department. This is a recipe for disaster.

The proposal also intentionally dodges requirements in the Utah Constitution. The bill’s requirement that USBE hire an independent contractor to manage the program only makes sense when you realize the state constitution specifically prohibits public money being spent on religious schools, which many private schools are. The voucher bill language also explicitly prohibits the State Board of Education from assessing any program or outcome associated with the voucher scheme – the program manager has free reign. This is puzzling since Article X of the Utah Constitution states “The general control and supervision of the public education system shall be vested in a State Board of Education.” If we’re spending our public tax money to educate students, the State Board of Education should have control and be able to supervise. Under this scheme, the state school board cannot require voucher programs to do anything – not require use of curriculum that follows publicly vetted, board approved curriculum standards, not require equitable admission standards, not even require program accreditation, or background checks of individuals in voucher ”eligible” programs serving fewer than 150 students.

All of that is bad enough, but recent independent legitimate research consistently shows students using vouchers have significantly worse outcomes overall than comparable public school peers. One careful study of the voucher program in Milwaukee found that the students who performed best were the ones who left voucher programs and returned to traditional public schools! 

This raises another troublesome issue – voucher students have no commitments. They can participate in sports and activities at traditional schools and return to traditional schools midyear if they wish, but traditional public schools will have $0 provided through the WPU to meet these students’ needs, further reducing services that can be provided to all students in our public schools.

That is patently unfair.

If our elected leaders truly want to provide the best education for every child in Utah, they would adequately fund Utah’s public schools. State and local school boards, superintendents, and the PTA have clear lists of needs that would produce significant benefits and every year we’re told there just isn’t money. Our Legislature has starved education by decreasing investment over decades, shorting Utah public schools more than $1 billion every year and creating the very challenges they now propose to solve through wasteful vouchers. 

Contact your Legislators and tell them to vote NO on House Bill 215. Ask them to put the money in the WPU instead so each district can put the money to best use meeting local needs, whether that’s teacher pay or Full-Day Kindergarten, bus driver benefits or part-time custodians, and so on.