Why Utah’s governor says he supports the controversial voucher bill

Cox had initially proposed the $6,000 raises for educators without a tie to a voucher program.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox speaks to the a crowd of more than 800 students at the Utah Capitol for Charter School Day, on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. In a statement Monday, the governor said he supported the voucher bill, HB215, that would allocate public taxpayer dollars for students to take to private schools.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said he supports the contentious school voucher proposal that has salary increases for teachers tied in as a bargaining chip.

In a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday, Cox called HB215 “a very balanced approach” that “gets teachers the pay raise they deserve.”

Cox had initially proposed $6,000 salary increases for teachers as part of his recommended budget in December. Immediately, Republican legislative leaders proposed making those pay bumps contingent on approving a school choice measure.

HB215 was introduced as the combination of those two items, allocating $42 million in taxpayer funds for a voucher system to allow students to go to private schools and $200 million for the teacher salary increases.

But many teachers and the state school school have been opposed to the measures being tied together. Educators have said they have earned their wage increase without strings attached.

And many don’t support a voucher program, which they fear will further undermine what they see as an underfunded public education system in Utah. Some have said it feels backhanded to give them money in the same breath as a proposal to encourage students to leave public schools.

Cox did not acknowledge that tension in his brief statement. He noted: “We appreciate the Legislature supporting our teacher pay proposal.”

Last year, the governor threatened to veto a similar $36 million bill to create a voucher system. At the time, he said, “You can’t take money that could go to our schools and allow it to go to private schools when you’re not fully funding the education system in our state.”

Cox said Utah teachers are underpaid. They earn an average starting salary of about $45,000, according to National Education Association data.

“When teachers are making $60,000 a year to start, I will fully support vouchers. I’m all in on vouchers, but we have a long way to go before we get there. I want to get there,” he said. “I can’t wait to get there, but now is not the time.”

The pay increase in the voucher bill means starting salaries would average $49,200, without benefits. HB215 calls for a $4,200 salary increase with $1,800 in benefits.