In an action that could usher in one of the most sweeping state education policy changes in recent history, the Utah House on Friday approved a private-school tuition voucher program — by a single vote.

"It's not an easy vote for any of us, but the process was exemplified today," House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, said after the 38-37 vote on HB148. "It's an extremely emotional and difficult issue ..., (and) the debate was of the highest caliber that I've seen in my 13 years here. I find it fascinating that not a single person spread the myth that it would be harmful to public education."

Though the House vote couldn't have been narrower, the bill extending vouchers worth up to $3,000 per student, based on income, might see more open waters the rest of the legislative session, which adjourns Feb. 28.

The House has been the key holdout every year on such measures since 2000, while the more conservative Senate in 2003 approved the concept, even when tied to a $90 million tax increase. That backing is said to remain.

"In the (GOP) Senate caucus, we had at least 19 senators indicate strong support for a voucher bill," said Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who plans to co-sponsor the bill. "Those numbers may change ..., but I think there's pretty strong support in the Senate."

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who has said he supports the concept of private school vouchers, said Friday regarding signing HB148 into law that "I'm inclined to lean in that direction."

Groundbreaking bill

The Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation in a national press release Friday said HB148, sponsored by Rep. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, "could become the nation's first-ever universal school voucher program" and become the first program to achieve the late Nobel laureate economist's vision for universal school choice.

That's what bugs the Utah Education Association.

"They just passed the largest subsidy in the nation," President Kim Campbell said. "This was never about private vs. public schools. This was about who pays for private schools."

Dubbed the Parent Choice in Education Act, HB148 would give families a private school tuition voucher that would range from $500 to $3,000 per student, scaled to income based on who qualifies for federal reduced-price school lunch. The larger would go to families of four, for example, earning less than about $37,000 a year; the smaller, to a family of the same size earning more than $92,500.

Public school officials have bristled over diverting money from Utah public schools, which receive the least per-student spending in the country, to private schools.

The bill aims to address that. It would leave per-student spending over and above the amount of the voucher in the school system. So, an estimated average $2,000 voucher still would leave $1,500 in state spending in the school district where the voucher recipient lives for the next five years, unless the student graduates.

Also, the bill seeks $9.2 million in general, not education, funds. The Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst says it would put nearly $4 million back into the schools' budget in the first year. The program would require more funding in the coming years.

Pro and con

In Friday's debate, Urquhart noted the state offers other private-school voucher programs, including the Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarships for students with disabilities and another to tutor high school students who repeatedly fail the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test. He also said popular early childhood intervention programs and concurrent enrollment, where high school students earn college credit, essentially are vouchers.

"We deem they're good for the citizens of this state, and they're good for the overall education system," Urquhart said.

So, he and other supporters say, is HB148.

Rep. Kenneth Sumsion, R-American Fork, noted the state has flagged 94 schools for not meeting state academic standards.

"My question would be to my fellow legislators, what about these children?" he said. "What have we done to some of these schools, and are we going to continue to funnel into them children that we don't consider important enough that we're going to put them in a failing school and see if they can succeed?

I propose this bill will give these children an opportunity for an education."

Opponents disagree, saying the state can't afford to fund another education system when the one it has already receives too little.

Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, likened the bill to a financial Cadillac in a state that can only afford a Volkswagen for public schools. She said few programs — save Milwaukee and Cleveland — offer so much money, adding Arizona's voucher tops out at $600.

"I think this is a choice that is not appropriate at this time.... Let's concentrate on our public schools and make them better," she said.

Opponents also decry what they call the bill's loose state accountability requirements and the constitutionality of sending money to religious schools, though supporters say they have no such concerns.

Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, questioned whether a free-market model would notch up public education, which must educate all and abide by stricter state and federal rules like No Child Left Behind. "Truth is, after all the competition is over, public education will be left to pick up the pieces."

The people's will?

The House has voted once before on vouchers or tuition tax credits, in 2005. The measure went down 34-40, stunning advocates who thought they had the needed 38 votes, plus two to spare.

The 2006 election brought 19 new faces to the House.

The UEA and Utah PTA say arms were twisted pretty hard before Friday's vote.

Rep. Kory Holdaway, R-Taylorsville, who opposes the bill, attempted to appeal to colleagues' consciences.

"We have been inundated with propaganda from outside of the state relative to this 'choice issue' ... and many of you have been under a great deal of pressure since the election closed, frankly," Holdaway said in an impassioned speech.

"The people in my district have told me ... this is not for us. This is not what we elected you to represent us for. I'm here to represent them ..., and I would respectfully submit to each one of you, you are the same," Holdaway said.

"Don't listen to the lobbyists that have been hired; listen to the people who have elected you."

Rep. Brad Last, R-St. George, changed his vote from a "no" in the House Education Standing Committee to a "yes" in Friday's vote. He said he has a responsibility to continue to study and redefine his position on issues.

"I believe history will demonstrate to supporters and detractors that this is a good choice. To those of you in public education who want to kill me right now, I'm really sorry. I understand your pain," Last said during the floor debate.

"I would ask you, go read this bill, and don't say a word to me until you read this bill. And those of you who want to pat me on the back, I would ask you, stay away from me.... Let me go hide for awhile."

What happened — and what's next?

The House: Representatives passed a private-school tuition voucher measure, 38-37. Each qualifying student could receive $500-$3,000 per year.

The Senate: Senators expect to pass the bill.

The governor: Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. says he is inclined to sign it into law.


Contributing: Tiffany Erickson, Bob Bernick Jr.

E-mail: [email protected]