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Utah teacher salaries, school choice scholarship will be linked in new bill

Posted at 5:06 PM, Jan 13, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that boosts teacher salaries significantly while also offering a "school choice" scholarship program will be made public next week as the Utah State Legislature begins meeting.

House Education Committee Chair Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, told FOX 13 News on Friday bill will create the "Utah Fits All" scholarship program, which would allow parents to apply and take funding to private school, home schooling, or similar options.

"It does two really important things. One, it gets more money directly to teachers by increasing their compensation and two, it empowers parents with tools to customize their kids educational experience," she said.

Rep. Pierucci said she was budgeting $200 million for educator salary increases and $42 million for the Utah Fits All scholarship. But attaching the two into a single bill is being opposed by the Utah Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

"It feels a bit disingenuous to put a salary increase that the governor is asking for with a voucher bill," said UEA President Renée Pinkney. "We look at those two issues as very separate and they should be decoupled they should be debated on their own merits."

Pinkney said UEA members do not support voucher legislation.

"When you start taking moneys from public education and giving it to private schools? There will be more opportunity gaps," she said. "Anytime you’re taking scarce resources from public education students — and 90% of students are public students — you’re shortchanging them."

Rep. Pierucci said public education will receive significant investments from the Utah State Legislature, nor does the bill siphon money like critics claim.

"We don’t have a scarcity mentality here. There is plenty of money for education," she said. "We're going to be giving a historic amount of funding for education again as we’ve done for the past several years."

But Pinkney countered that education spending in Utah has been lacking.

"We have yet to fully realize a fully-funded public education system in Utah," she told FOX 13 News.

School choice or voucher bills have had a rocky history in the Utah State Legislature. Lawmakers in 2007 passed a bill and a citizen referendum was launched, which led voters to repeal it. Last year, a similar bill to create a scholarship program failed to pass the House.

Times have changed, however, with new members of the Utah State Legislature coming into office. Republican legislative leaders are supportive of the proposal. Governor Spencer Cox has signaled he would support a school choice bill with public education funding boosts. In an interview with FOX 13 News, the governor said teacher pay was among his top priorities.

"Our public schools are very, very popular in this state. We have some polling that shows that 90-ish percent of people are very satisfied with their school, very happy with their kid's school," the governor said earlier this week. "So I don’t anticipate even if there is a school choice we would see a mass exodus in a way that would hurt public education or funding for public education."

Rep. Pierucci said she has been meeting with the governor's office and "we're in a good place" on the bill, which could be numbered and made public by Monday.

"The bill includes the teacher salary compensation and the scholarship program. And I think that’s important because we’re focusing on the two most important pieces of the puzzle," she said. "The system was designed to serve students and the teachers are the frontline employees that are taking care of those kiddos."