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A bill that aims to expand online learning opportunities for students — partly by redirecting public dollars — gained preliminary approval Thursday in the Senate.

The Senate voted 19-7 in favor of SB65 but must vote for the bill one more time before it can move to the House. The bill aims to expand learning opportunities for students by allowing them to take online courses offered by public and private providers to be certified by the state school board. The funding would follow the students, instead of a local district getting all the cash for that student.

"I urge you to set our children free," bill sponsor Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, told senators Thursday. "Allow them to take more online courses and serve their needs rather than serving the needs of institutions."

Bill opponents, however, have called SB65 another "school voucher bill" because it could take money now going to public schools and send it to private providers. No one went so far as to call it that on the Senate floor Thursday, but Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, said she didn't like the idea of putting money toward a new program, given the state's budget constraints.

"I just have heartburn when I have 35 kids in Hunter High School stacked, and we can't even take care of our classrooms, we're having a new program," Mayne said.

Several lawmakers had questions about the cost of the program, which Stephenson said he'll work to clarify before the bill comes to the floor again.

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