As expected, the House Education Standing Committee on Tuesday OK'd what would be Utah's first general government voucher program for private school tuition, costing the state $9.2 million up front.

That leaves the House, once again, in the ultimate driver's seat — positioned to steer the controversial measure either to the graveyard, where it has dumped it seven years in a row, or to the Senate, where many believe it will pass without too much difficulty. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has expressed support for the concept.

"We knew this would not be close," Kim Burningham, chairman of the State Board of Education, which opposes the concept, said after the committee hearing. "We always knew (the real test) was on the floor of the House. We'll keep working."

So will bill-backing Parents for Choice in Education.

"You never know until the bill's actually voted on," executive director Elisa Peterson said. "It's looking good, (but) minds can change last minute."

A Dan Jones poll for the Deseret Morning News finds the public split over the matter. House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, has said he believes the bill has the 38 votes needed to pass; some moderates and opponents wonder.

Either way, the issue remains emotional, as seen in about an hour's worth of public testimony Tuesday.

"Public schools do offer choices to families; however, choices are extremely limited," said Rachael Ringwood, who characterized herself as a single mother from Salt Lake City. "At times, I even donated plasma to make sure my children are in a school where performance is at or above the national average. ... Without a voucher system or a private school scholarship (which the family receives) my children wouldn't have a choice."

And from the other side: "I feel opposition to this bill in my bones. Every dollar that goes to a private school voucher program is a dollar that does not go to public schools" in a state that spends the least per student in the country, said Heather Bennett, member of the Salt Lake City Board of Education. "Think of the 97 percent of the students who find what they need in the public school system."

HB148, dubbed "The Parent Choice in Education Act," is sponsored by Rep. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George.

It would give a $3,000 private school tuition voucher to a family of four earning $37,000 or less a year, according to federal eligibility guidelines for reduced-price school lunch, all the way down to $500 for the same family earning $92,500 a year or more. Those in public school now, who are new to the state, just entering kindergarten or are low-income now attending private schools would be eligible. Participating private schools would have to have at least 40 students. Home schools couldn't participate.

The bill would leave voucher students' leftover state per-student spending with their school districts. The State Office of Education reports the state funding for education is about $3,500 per student. So, if the average voucher is just under $2,000 per student, as the Legislative fiscal analyst office estimates, then $1,500 would stay with the student's school district to offset any financial problems for the next five years or until the student would graduate from high school.

Local money spent on education, rounding out the state average spent to about $5,200, also would remain in the system.

The bill also contains some accountability measures, including teacher skill requirements and accounting procedures.

"Public schools, they do a pretty fantastic job in this state ... but there are some that it doesn't work for," Urquhart said. "If someone is very wealthy, they have (a private school) choice ... this will help some people maybe clear that financial hurdle, to go after something they think is better."

Ken Johnson, director of the Milwaukee Public Schools Board of School Directors, said the voucher system there brought good changes to public schools, including budgetary and enrollment growth and parent empowerment. "School choice gives parents an option to leave. It was up to us then to come to parents and say, 'What is it that you need?"'

Still, money remains a chief bone of contention.

The bill calls for $9.2 million in general, not school, funds in the coming year, and $12.3 million the year after. The Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst also says it would put nearly $4 million in the first, and $3.6 million the second, back into the schools' budget.

The bill's fiscal note is not that far off from the State Office of Education's estimated costs.

Still, the state office contends the bill is a bad deal for public schools. Some 22,000 students ultimately would have to leave public schools in order for the public schools to break even, the office estimates. That's about 4,000 students more than attend private schools now. The reason: In 13 years, the state would have to pay for more than 16,000 students in private schools they never used to have to worry about.

"Over the years, proponents claimed there would be a cost savings ... well, it's refreshing to note in this bill we have at least an acknowledgement there will be a cost," said Vik Arnold, government relations specialist for the Utah Education Association. "The reality is, the fiscal cost of this bill will escalate over the next 12 years."

Aside from money, the State Board of Education and associations for school employees, boards, superintendents and business officials contend the bill is unconstitutional. The State Office of Education, for instance, cites a 2001 Utah Supreme Court ruling says the Legislature "cannot establish schools and programs that are not open to all the children of Utah or free from sectarian control, and it cannot establish public elementary and secondary schools that are not free of charge."

Dee Larsen of the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, however, says "there are arguments, and there are counter arguments."

One parent opposing the bill suggested ways it might improve: Give it to students in schools with low test scores, for example.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, said she couldn't vote for a bill that doesn't make private schools as accountable as public schools in the form of testing, teacher licensing or required criminal background checks.

In the end, the committee voted 9-to-6 to forward the bill to the House for debate. "No" votes were: Reps. Jim Gowans, D-Tooele; Kory Holdaway, R-Taylorsville; Lou Shurtliff, D-Ogden; Brad Last, R-St. George; Mark Wheatley, D-Murray; and Moss.

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