SALT LAKE CITY — A bill moving quickly in the Utah State Legislature would allow parents to take their children out of an online-only class to another school — public or private — that offers in-person classroom instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Money that would normally be intended for that school district would follow the student to the new school.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, ran SB107 after complaints from a number of parents in the Salt Lake City School District who were angry that the school board voted to remain online-only when all other districts in the state returned to some form of in-person learning.
"There are a large percentage of parents in the Salt Lake city School District who want their children to have an in-person classroom experience and believe that their children are failing because they’re being deprived of that opportunity," Sen. Weiler told the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.
Sen. Weiler said he has been discussing the issue with the Salt Lake City School District since October. But he has faced pushback over the legislation from teacher's unions, the school board and fellow lawmakers who believed he was unnecessarily targeting the district.
It's the latest move by legislators to go after the lone school district that has yet to return to some kind of in-person classroom instruction. House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, persuaded lawmakers to withhold bonuses for educators in the district that were intended as a "thank you" for working during the COVID-19 pandemic — unless they returned students to a physical classroom.
"It overlooks Utah’s longstanding value of support for local control in local decision making," Melissa Ford, the Salt Lake City School Board President, said of Sen. Weiler's bill.
The Salt Lake City School Board recently voted to return to some in-person classroom instruction beginning in the next few weeks. Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, said he believed in-person learning was better for students. But he pointed out that Salt Lake City has a high COVID-19 transmission rate.
He also questioned if the bill had other motives.
"It feels like a slippery slope to vouchers and that’s a huge concern all on its own," Sen. Kitchen said, announcing he would vote against it.
Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, who is an elementary school teacher, said the Salt Lake City School District has offered "consistency" in its decision, where her own district has had a mix of in-person or online classes as COVID-19 cases spike and go away.
"I’m going to vote no because this board made their decision and we should respect that board," she said.
During Wednesday's committee hearing, public comment was divided. Some parents urged support for SB107.
"This bill is a last resort for us and the thing that’s lacking is the reality for families," said Emily McCormack.
Teacher's union representatives blasted the bill as stepping on local decision making. Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews called it "a bill that is clearly designed to bully one particular district."
The bill passed out of committee on a 5-2 party line vote. It will head to the Senate floor, but Sen. Weiler told FOX 13 it may not go further than that. If Salt Lake City schools return to some form of in-person learning, he said he might hold the bill.
"We wanted to give the parents a voice who have been so frustrated they didn’t have an in-person option," he said. "But at the same time we’re not looking to step on toes."