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School vouchers could receive warm P.C. reception

Patrick Parkinson Of the Record staff

Having recently surveyed many of his western Summit County constituents, Kamas Republican Rep. David Ure believes nearly half favor a tax voucher program for parents who send their children to private schools.

"You’d be surprised how many people in the Park City area are in favor of vouchers & there must be two sides to every story," Ure said Monday. "Rural Utah is not in favor of this & but I don’t believe rural Utah would be affected by this."

In recent years, few issues have been more hotly debated on Utah’s Capitol Hill than whether parents who pull their kids from the public education system should take some of their tax dollars with them. Many Park City School District officials oppose the plan.

But Rep. Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace claims he has found a way with his House Bill 340 to provide tax relief for parents while holding public education harmless when students pull out.

"The public schools have got to be protected," Ure contends. "I’ve always said I philosophically support [vouchers] but the public schools have got to have insurance."

To address Ure’s concern, Dee says for several years his Parent Choice in Education Act would continue to provide public education funding for students who transfer into private schools. New Utah residents, those switching from public to private schools and private school students from lower income families could qualify for the "scholarships," but not others who currently attend private schools.

Dee wants nearly $13 million to begin providing annual private school vouchers ranging from $500 to $3,000 based on family income.

"Is the $13 million ongoing or is it one time?" Ure asked, adding that the legislation is unclear on this point.

Meanwhile, as voucher opponents argue that public schools would lose funding if parents who enroll their kids in private education are compensated, supporters of school choice counter that a voucher program would instead save school districts money.

The budgets and per pupil spending in many school systems that have adopted voucher programs have increased, said Royce Van Tassell, communications director for Parents for Choice in Education, a pro-voucher lobby group. The organization has not taken a position on HB 340.

"We have some questions about the bill and our sense is that it’s better to try and negotiate those privately than publicly," Van Tassell said.

To receive a scholarship, parents must acknowledge children at private schools may not receive "the same level of services that are provided in a public school." By accepting the scholarship they assume full responsibility for the child’s education.

"Is [a student] going to be able to come back to a private school to get those courses that he needs, and what’s going to be the remedy for paying both?" Ure said.

Eligible private schools must be located in Utah and comply with anti-discrimination laws. Scholarships can’t be used at schools that operate inside homes or have fewer than 25 students.

The bill requires parents provide proof of income before quarterly scholarship payments begin.

According to HB 340, "parents are presumed best informed to make decisions for their children, including the educational setting that will best serve their children’s interests and educational needs."

But Democratic Rep. Ross Romero, who represents portions of the Snyderville Basin, is against school vouchers.

"I personally, and I think a lot of Democrats feel the same way, don’t feel that we have adequately funded public education," Romero said during a recent telephone interview.

Utah schools are last in the nation in per pupil spending and the amount public education would lose through vouchers could be the boost the state needs to shed that distinction, the representative added.

"The analysis should be, shouldn’t we be investing in the education system that exists currently to a higher degree to move us from the 51st to the 50th, as opposed to creating a whole new avenue of funding for the private school community," Romero said.


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