Updated: Nov 6
Utah State Representative Candice Pierucci first took her seat in the Utah Legislature in 2019 - when she was just 27 years old. Four years later, she was front and center during Utah's debate over education choice - and she led the effort to get it passed.
It was in the most unusual location that I first heard her story. While poolside in Orlando this past summer, I met Rep. Pierucci and her wonderful family for the first time. Her young son struck up a conversation with my two boys, and we were off and running talking policy.
The sweltering Orlando heat may have been nothing compared to what Rep. Pierucci faced during the 2023 Utah Legislative session. As Utah legislators advanced HB 0215 - to increase teacher pay and adopt education choice - all the typical predictions of doom and gloom were put forward. But the bill passed and was signed by Utah's Governor Spencer Cox.
I asked Rep. Pierucci about her experience - from the beginning to the end - in hopes that legislators throughout the mountain states can learn how to achieve more education options for all families.
Why did you feel it so important to advance education choice in Utah?
I firmly believe that supporting education means supporting the best approach for educating each individual child in our state. It was time that we made education more customizable for each child in Utah; one in which parents could tailor their child’s learning experience to better meet the needs of their students. In the wake of COVID-19 and the shutdowns that occurred, it was clear that parents craved additional options for their kids to learn and grow. The Utah Fits All Scholarship empowers families to make the best decisions for their kiddos in providing opportunities to learn in a way that makes sense for them.
Even though there is evidence to the contrary, some claim education choice takes away from public schools… how did you address this issue?
In 2022, we spent a total of $7.3 Billion for public education, of that amount, $4.7 Billion came directly from state funds. The Utah Fits All program is less than 1% of the entire state budget for education, and less than half a percent of the total education spending. We increased spending on public education, yet again, and didn’t reduce program funding or the WPU to pay for the scholarship. Additionally, additional legislation was run that froze student enrollment and funding for districts for the next five years.
Another issue critics pounce on is the impact in rural areas… how was that dealt with?
Interestingly, some of our biggest supporters were from rural Utah. Additionally, we had polling to show that rural districts were overwhelmingly supportive of the program. Choice in education is especially important in rural communities as it expands students learning options. Additionally, we made sure the scholarship could be used for travel to get to/from an alternative education choice. Including a historic teacher pay increase was critical in demonstrating the state’s support for both teachers and students, and it increased support for the bill from rural legislators.
Are there strong accountability measures in your ed choice law?
The program managing entity will be audited annually and required to report back to the Education Interim Committee annually. Additionally, the program managing entity and scholarship program will be audited regularly by the Utah State Auditor. The program managing entity has clear guidelines as to what is an approved educational expense and how to ensure the scholarship goes to approved educational expenses.
Scholarship recipients are required to submit a portfolio at the end of the academic year to demonstrate their growth and learning throughout the year. If a parent requests their child take an assessment, that test can replace the portfolio requirement.
How did you convince skeptical lawmakers and your governor that this was the right thing to do?
Working with the Governor, we made sure to include a historic pay increase for teachers across the state, this increased support for the bill…Additionally, adding the portfolio requirement was helpful from an accountability perspective. Also, having grass roots support from families all over the state was critical.
What was something you had to give up in order to get the bill passed?
The automatic growth formula. The Executive Appropriations Committee will have to go in each year to increase funding; however, we won’t need to vote on the budget item individually.
What surprised you most about the debate and the process?
I genuinely was surprised that the education “establishment” and opponents of the bill didn’t want to talk about students, they wanted to talk about the system, and employees of the system. Meeting students’ needs wasn’t something opponents were interested in talking about.
What advice would you give to lawmakers in other states considering education choice?
No matter the size of your school choice program, whether it be universal or capped, or income-based, you will face the same opposition. So, with that in mind, craft the absolute best policy that will empower the students and families in your state and think big.