School choice, teacher salaries bill clears legislature, heads to Gov. Cox

Posted at 12:31 PM, Jan 26, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would give raises to teachers across Utah but also create a controversial "school choice" scholarship program passed the legislature on Thursday and is now headed to Governor Spencer Cox's desk.

House Bill 215 passed the Utah State Senate on a 20-8 vote, with two Republicans joining Democrats in opposing it. The margin is veto-proof and referendum-proof.

Asked about this bill and another one dealing with transgender youth, Governor Spencer Cox told FOX 13 News he was not planning to veto either:

"We'll see if there are any changes made but right now we’re not planning to veto either of them," he said.

Asked if he was comfortable with the bills as they are written now, the governor replied: "Well, they’re not perfect, but they don’t let me write the bills, so…"

The Utah Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, hinted that litigation might be possible.

"Despite an outpouring of emails, calls and text messages from educators and the public, lawmakers fast-tracked a voucher bill in less than two weeks. It is clear that this was a well-coordinated effort that began before the session started. Governor Cox plans to sign off on the legislation. Also, lawmakers received a supermajority of votes in the House of Representatives and Senate. This prohibits UEA from gathering signatures for a ballot referendum. Nevertheless, UEA is exploring every option available to overturn this damaging legislation that jeopardizes the future of public education," the union said in a statement responding to the bill's passage.

The UEA said it would now turn toward other legislative priorities.

"With six weeks left in the legislative session, there are still many opportunities to pass critical legislation. Increased education funding is our top priority. There is much still to do, and we need your help," the group said.

The bill spends $200 million on direct teacher salary increases, amounting to about $6,000 per teacher. It also appropriates $42 million for the "Utah Fits All" scholarship program. Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, said that would be about $8,000 for roughly 5,000 students who applied to use toward costs of private school, home school or other options.

"This is a scholarship program that is more akin to an education savings account. The scholarship amounts may only be used on pre-approved or otherwise authorized education expenses," he said.

Senate Democrats, who opposed the bill, said they were disappointed with its passage.

"I think the short-term raise? All of us are going to like it," said Senate Minority Whip Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights. "But the long term impacts to our education system are really alarming to me."

Sen. Cullimore told reporters he was amenable to some tweaks to the program as it rolls out.

"I think we’re open to looking at what we can do to fine tune this and ensure its implementation runs as smooth as possible," he said.