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State officials, agencies debate school choice bill on 1st day of Utah School Choice Week

Hundreds of students attend a rally to support school choice, hosted by the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly 1,000 charter school students from Logan to St. Louis. George descended upon the Utah Capitol Rotunda on Monday to rally and advocate for school choice.

“Charter schools continue to grow year over year because parents want more choice. They want to match the education that their child gets with a specific school,” said Royce Van Tassell, executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools.

This choice ranges from parents putting their children in hands-on Montessori schools, as well as schools with special focus on sports, performing arts and science or technology, among others.

Monday’s rally was timed to coincide with National School Choice Week, which will feature more than 26,000 school choice events across all 50 states to raise equal and positive awareness of the traditional public, public charter, public magnet, private, online and home education options available. for families, according to a release from the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools.

The Utah Association of Public Charter Schools is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization focused on promoting excellence in public charter schools throughout the state through advocacy, training and technical support.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox joined Monday’s rally, voicing his support for school choice.

Kamila Ramirez performs with the Aguilas de la Esperanza mariachi band during a rally to support school choice, hosted by the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday.  Nearly 1,000 charter school students from Logan to St.  George on Monday descended upon the Utah Capitol Rotunda to rally and advocate for school choice as controversial bill makes its way through the legislature.
Kamila Ramirez performs with the Aguilas de la Esperanza mariachi band during a rally to support school choice, hosted by the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday. Nearly 1,000 charter school students from Logan to St. George on Monday descended upon the Utah Capitol Rotunda to rally and advocate for school choice as controversial bill makes its way through the legislature. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

“When I spoke the other night to the Legislature, I talked to them about the next generation — making sure that our state is a better place for you than it is for your parents and grandparents,” Cox said. That happens through education. We know that education makes us better people. It will make you a better adult, it will help you to find a great job. Most importantly, it will help you to solve all of the problems that face us here. in the state of Utah.”

He emphasized the need for good teachers, adequate teacher pay and an overall “great” education system.

“The charter system helps us do that. You have choices that your parents have chosen that are making it better for you and your families,” Cox said. “I just want you to know how much we love you, how much we love our charter schools and how much we are committed to making sure that we have the best education system in the world right here in Utah.”

Cox also unveiled an official declaration, declaring Jan. 23 through Jan. 29. as Utah School Choice Week.

The rally and the first day of Utah School Choice Week coincidentally fell on the same day that the Utah State Board of Education called a special meeting to vote on HB215 — a bill that would create a school choice scholarship (also being called a school voucher) and increase teacher salaries.

The board voted 10-5 to oppose the bill as it is currently written.

gov.  Spencer Cox, left, shakes hands with Royce Van Tassell, Utah Association of Public Charter Schools executive director, during a rally to support school choice, hosted by the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday.  Nearly 1,000 charter school students from Logan to St.  George on Monday descended upon the Utah Capitol Rotunda to rally and advocate for school choice as controversial bill makes its way through the legislature.
gov. Spencer Cox, left, shakes hands with Royce Van Tassell, Utah Association of Public Charter Schools executive director, during a rally to support school choice, hosted by the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday. Nearly 1,000 charter school students from Logan to St. George on Monday descended upon the Utah Capitol Rotunda to rally and advocate for school choice as controversial bill makes its way through the legislature. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Some of the issues raised by board members include a lack of student data privacy, questions about program oversight and the process of drafting and debating the bill. Many members of the board also recognized frustration from educators and schools for not separating educator salary increases from the scholarship program,” said a release from the board.

Interestingly enough, Van Tassell said that he and the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools “may be the only organization at the Capitol that are officially neutral (on HB215).”

Prior to the board’s vote, Utah State Board of Education member Carol Lear, a Democrat, told KSL NewsRadio that if the board votes to oppose the bill, “it signals to the Legislature, whether it makes a difference or not, that the public education Oversight body does not support sending public money to private schools, religious schools, (and) schools that don’t have the same oversight that public schools do.”

Lear said that the board wanted to vote on the bill to affirm their education partners that they stand with them in opposition to the bill.

“(We want to tell) the local School Boards Association, PTA, UEA, all of the school districts, superintendents, that we stand with you. This will not be a good thing for local schools,” Lear said.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, last week posted a Twitter thread arguing the benefits of a school voucher.

Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson on Monday also took to Twitter to voice his support for HB215, a bill he says strengthens the ability of teachers to commit to their students and parents being about to do what’s best for students.

Lear said that her biggest “umbrella objection” to the bill is that “private schools will receive public money that should go to public schools.”

“I (also) don’t like that the teacher’s salary increase is just being shamelessly connected to the voucher,” Lear said.

She added that the bill also gives the board the financial responsibility of managing and overseeing the scholarship program despite “zero discussion” with the board.

“It could be the board being set up to crash and burn in terms of oversight,” she said.

Lear also argued that the bill allows discrimination when determining who is prioritized to receive a scholarship.

“The only non-discrimination measure in (the bill) only prohibits discrimination based on race, color, and national origin,” Lear said. “They could discriminate against kids with disabilities, poor kids, based on gender; they could theoretically take all boys and no girls,” she said. “They can discriminate against kids who have minor disciplinary problems and kids who have none at all.”

Hundreds of students attend a rally to support school choice, hosted by the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday.  Nearly 1,000 charter school students from Logan to St.  George on Monday descended upon the Utah Capitol Rotunda to rally and advocate for school choice as controversial bill makes its way through the legislature.
Hundreds of students attend a rally to support school choice, hosted by the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday. Nearly 1,000 charter school students from Logan to St. George on Monday descended upon the Utah Capitol Rotunda to rally and advocate for school choice as controversial bill makes its way through the legislature. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

In the release announcing the decision of the Utah State Board of Education’s vote on the bill, the board said that it has compiled a list of questions and feedback that was sent to the bill sponsors last week.

“The board expressed its desire to continue partnering with the Legislature to provide insight into how the bill may be improved,” the release said.

In an interview with KSL NewsRadio on Monday, Senate Majority Assistant Whip Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, a co-sponsor of HB215, said that he doesn’t expect to see “any amendments in this particular bill, but there are some other bills.” that may address education and similar-type programs where we can make some changes per their recommendations and requests.”

As far as separating educator salary increases from the scholarship program, a gripe voted by the board in its vote to oppose HB215, Cullimore responded “probably not” when asked if there have been any considerations around separating the two.

“The message from the governor’s office, whether it was his express intent or not, was that he’s supportive of school choice if we can get teacher salary up to where it is,” Cullimore said.

Debate on HB215 was set to resume in the Senate Education Standing Committee on Monday at 2 pm If the committee votes in favor of the bill, it will be sent to the full senate floor for a final vote.

Contributing: Lindsay Aerts

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Logan Stefanich is a reporter with KSL.com, covering southern Utah communities, education, business and military news.

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