Friday the House approved a bill that would tweak the new private school voucher law known as the Parents for Choice in Education Act.

HB174 would give the State Office of Education an additional $100,000 to run the voucher program, require teachers at schools where voucher students are enrolled to have background checks and require the state perform an audit of the program in five years.

"I appreciate this bill that improves a bill that a lot of us didn't like," said Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful.

In what is considered the most wide-ranging voucher law in the country, the program provides Utah families a private school tuition voucher ranging from $500 to $3,000 per student, scaled to income based on who qualifies for federal reduced-price school lunch. It also allocated $100,000 to the State Office of Education for oversight and scheduled an audit of the program after seven years.

But state education officials said to develop and oversee the voucher program will be a sizable undertaking, and $100,000 — that would translate into one staff member — will not pay for adequate oversight.

Carol Lear, director of school law and legislation for the State Office of Education, said those selected to oversee the program would be charged to verify applicant incomes, approve eligible students, determine the amount of individual vouchers, provide quarterly payments to the private schools, cross check residency for students new to the state and make sure participating private schools have the required health and safety codes in place.

"That's just the tip of the iceberg," Lear said.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Brad Last, R-St. George, would increase the funding to $200,000, adding an extra full-time employee to run the program.

"Is it enough? I don't know, but it is more than $100,000," Last said.

"It's better — it's hard to say right now ... there are a huge number of related tasks, but it's better," Lear said.

Moreover, similar to the procedure in public school programs, the bill would require teachers in the private schools accepting vouchers to undergo a criminal background check to ensure students' safety.

"I don't want to get into the private schools and tell them what to do, but at least we can assure that those that are working with children who receive the voucher have undergone a background check," Last said.

The shortened time period before a legislative audit is conducted is still enough time to get the program up and running but would allow lawmakers to see the effectiveness sooner.

The House passed the measure 54-11.


E-mail: terickson@desnews.com