January 26, 2023
It’s school choice week nationally, and it has certainly been an education choice week at the Utah Legislature. In the first few days of the legislative session, lawmakers made serious moves toward creating an education savings account program through HB 215 – Funding for Teacher Salaries and Optional Education Opportunities.
The bill is intended to help students in public schools by giving the average schoolteacher a 6.5% salary increase and allowing participating students access to $8,000 Utah Fits All Scholarship to help with online, private or at-home education expenses. It’s also available to part-time public-school students, who would receive a prorated scholarship.
Much has been said about the program’s accountability measures. Accountability is a crucial feature in any good public policy. The Legislature, in representing the public, has a duty to ensure adequate oversight and appropriate controls over the use of taxpayer dollars. To do so, they should ask who in the public is most directly affected by the consequences of the policy and try to be accountable to them in meaningful ways. Specifically, we should ask who is most directly affected both financially and academically.
Financially, taxpayers are most directly affected by Utah Fits All, as all public funds come from the hard-earned money of taxpayers. There ought to be effective measures in place to ensure that funds are being used as intended by the law.
HB215 includes several financial accountability provisions for taxpayers: requiring background checks for the program manager, annual and random audits of individual families’ scholarship accounts, a suspension process for those who intentionally or substantially misuse scholarship funds, and, in some cases, a requirement for surety bonds from qualifying providers. It also includes means to withhold funds from providers or withdraw them from the program if they do not meet certain terms. These measures appear to be a good faith effort to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being used in ways that meet the particulars of the scholarship program.
In terms of academics, education policy always, clearly and directly, affects the student, their learning, their post-secondary options, their careers, their future families and their communities. This means the Legislature should create accountability significantly geared toward the student and their decision-makers (i.e. their parents). HB 215 seeks academic accountability to parents and students through increasing options and autonomy in education. In this bill, parents and students can make education decisions based on current individual needs, paid for with scholarship funds. If they do not like their academic outcomes, they can make immediate, real-time changes to seek an education that better suits them.
In fact, one of the important purposes of public-school accountability efforts (like dashboards, school grades, Blue Ribbon status, etc.) is to communicate with families about how a school is performing so parents can be aware and take appropriate action for their child’s well-being. However, if a school is not performing well, robust accountability would deliver not just heightened awareness to the public but a way for parents to change that circumstance with options.
HB 215 does this more effectively than many other forms of school accountability policy because it enables parents through the aid of scholarship funds to directly change the education path of their child. Inadequate attention from a school toward a student’s academic success leads to parents taking their child and that child’s scholarship funds elsewhere – a clear and direct form of academic accountability. Their choices can give their student a new education provider and signal to the market who and where the best providers are found.
All education accountability policies have pros and cons, but parent empowerment to improve student learning should be at the heart of those efforts, and HB 215 seeks to offer that directly through robust parent choice.
Still, the public at large is affected by how well the next generation is educated, and this bill contemplates that too by requiring academic signals to the broader public: Participating students must submit a portfolio of work to the program manager or take an approved assessment. While parents can decide which route to take, one or the other is required by the program.
Accountability has rightly been a hotly debated discussion during the 2023 legislative session, and more work ought to be done on this issue in Utah to make sure our accountability policies match the state’s current needs. But HB 215 makes important strides toward both meaningful financial accountability to taxpayers and academic accountability to students and parents.
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