With the close of the 2020 Utah Legislative session on March 12, Governor Herbert had until April 1 to use his veto power. He used this power under the advice of UEA and other pro public education groups on HB332. This bill was a controversial pro-voucher bill for special education students. The same session the Legislature sought to do away with the constitutional guarantee for public education funding, they also tried to take away public tax dollars from public schools to provide vouchers to private schools for students with special needs. Here’s the rub, private schools don’t have to accept all students, nor follow the strict guidelines under federal IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) law which means they should not receive precious few public tax dollars to fund their private ventures. In 2007 UEA challenged another voucher bill via a citizens' referendum. More than 60% of Utah’s public voted AGAINST any use of public money for private school voucher programs. This public vote put to rest the idea of private school vouchers in Utah.
As you know, since the school dismissal due to COVID-19 pandemic, teachers all over the state have been forced to learn how to navigate online-teaching and communicate via technology with all students. Special educators are carefully providing service minutes to students via distance learning and ensuring that their needs are met in this most difficult situation. Teachers are working more hours now than they did before. Most of the counties in Utah have been on a “shelter-in-place” recommendation or order by the local and state officials. Closure of businesses has been an economic hardship for the state, therefore, the Utah State Legislature called itself into a “special session” to address the economic downfall as a result of COVID-19. In the midst of this special session necessary due to the pandemic, the legislature is also attempting to revive HB332 (renumbered to HB4003) by offering revisions the governor may be able to live with, while still trying to siphon off public tax dollars for private business. On Thursday, April 23rd, the legislature will meet again and UEA believes this new bill will be addressed. Behind the door lobbying has been done by Utah House members to sway the governor to accept this push for a voucher bill.
We need everyone who cares about public education to contact your legislators and say “No!” to any voucher bill. Special educators in our public schools who have worked with students who have been turned away from private schools, need to tell their stories. You can find out who your legislators are by going to https://le.utah.gov/GIS/findDistrict.jsp to get their email addresses. Messages need to flood the legislators’ boxes before Thursday’s special session reopens. No matter what you call it, stipend or scholarship – a voucher is a voucher – Utah says “no” to raiding public taxes for private business! To help you in drafting your letters to your legislators, following are some talking points regarding the proposed legislation:
- A special needs scholarship program is completely unrelated to the COVID-19 emergency. Save this for the 2021 General Session, when the public can fully participate in policy discussions.
- It would be irresponsible to create a multi-million-dollar tax credit program, with current budget uncertainty.
- Private schools may deny admission to any student, and private schools don’t have to provide the same level of disability services as a public school.
- In many rural areas of Utah, private schools do not exist, which means the bill will favor students living in an urban setting.
- The Carson Smith scholarship program already exists for special needs students and is not at full capacity.