Utah teachers could see a $6,000 pay, benefits bump — but it may hinge on passage of school voucher legislation

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox also wants to give taxpayers a one-time tax rebate check next year.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Gov. Spencer Cox talks about a salary hike for teachers, at Centennial Jr High School in Kaysville, on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is proposing spending approximately $200 million to give every public schoolteacher in the state a $6,000 raise in next year’s budget, something legislative leaders have signaled they will support. However, the Republican-dominated legislature is angling to make that pay hike contingent on the passage of legislation for school vouchers.

Typically, salary increases are discretionary spending and can differ across school districts. These would be paid directly to teachers, with $4,600 going to their paychecks while the remaining $1,400 would go toward benefits.

In behind-the-scenes negotiations, legislative leaders are hoping to use the pay raise to secure passage of school choice legislation, most likely some form of voucher program allowing students to use public education funds to pay for private schools, with amounts based on household income, sources tell The Salt Lake Tribune. The gamble is education stakeholders would think twice before mobilizing opposition to school choice legislation if it means sacrificing a pay raise.

Cox, while alongside First Lady Abby Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, announced the teacher pay hike surrounded by dozens of teachers and administrators at Centennial Junior High School in Kaysville on Thursday afternoon.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox poses for a photo with teachers, after delivering a speech about a salary hike for teachers, at Centennial Jr High School in Kaysville, on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022.

The governor said he wants to empower the next generation of teachers and that addressing the state’s teacher shortage starts with boosting salaries. He added that his proposal would potentially take effect during this fiscal year, explaining that the pay bump could come into effect between the 2023 legislative session and the end of June.

“We love our teachers,” Cox said, standing on a stage next to the junior high’s cafeteria. “They have sacrificed so much over the past few years. They have taken on so much, and one way we can reward them is by paying more.”

Jenny Fox, a Centennial Jr. High teacher who’s been an educator for 23 years, said the proposed pay bump would be amazing for teachers.

”We love that he’s focusing on education because it is about the kids and it is really about helping them succeed,” Fox said.

She added she’s glad Cox addressed the average citizen before announcing the teacher pay bump, saying there are more people than only teachers in need.

”It will be interesting to see his announcements tomorrow, and hopefully other groups that really need it will also benefit,” she said of Cox’s second budget news conference, scheduled for Friday afternoon.

When asked later if there will be negotiations with the legislature about school vouchers, Cox said there will be.

“I’ve said for many years that I support school choice, but not at the expense of our teachers and not at the expense of public education,” he told reporters.

“We shouldn’t be pitting each other against each other. You don’t need to do that, we have the ability to do all of these things, to help families wherever they are, to help families who want to take a different path,” Cox said. “I think we should support that, but we have to get this piece of it.”

The Legislature’s move is just months removed from a school voucher bill that failed to pass the Utah House after it narrowly survived committee. Even if that bill — which would have allocated $36 million to fund the voucher program — passed the Utah House and Senate, Cox said he’d have vetoed the measure.

In 2007, Utah lawmakers passed a school voucher bill that was repealed the same year when opponents secured the signatures needed to put a referendum on the ballot. Over 62% of voters opted to ditch the school voucher bill.

Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, would not comment directly on whether lawmakers plan to tie teacher raises to school choice legislation.

”We certainly appreciate our teachers and all they do to prepare Utah’s rising generation. With the legislative session nearing, there are many ideas and proposals floating around in terms of teacher retention, compensation, support and choice. We will allow the legislative process [to] play out as designed and pass policies to benefit the lives of all Utahns,” Wilson said in a statement to The Tribune.

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, did not dispute that lawmakers are considering tying increased teacher compensation to school choice legislation.

“We want to prioritize funding for our most precious resource: our kids. For the vast majority who attend public schools, that means doing what we can to retain and attract the best teachers through increased pay. For other students, that may mean funding to pursue education options that meet their unique needs. Over the last few years, teachers have dedicated their time and efforts to helping our students succeed during difficult circumstances. We’re exploring policies that will promote and improve educational opportunities for all children,” Adams said in a statement.

This wouldn’t be the first time lawmakers used a financial threat to pressure educators. In 2021, lawmakers proposed giving teachers and staffers in Utah public schools a one-time bonus during the COVID-19 pandemic. Legislative leaders threatened to withhold those bonuses from the Salt Lake City School District unless they returned to in-person classes. District leaders eventually cut a deal with lawmakers to secure teacher bonuses.

Utah Education Association President Renee Pinkney applauded the move to boost teacher salaries but added the state’s public schools are facing significant challenges.

“The UEA’s vision is a safe equitable school for every child. This starts with a highly qualified educator paid a professional salary. In addition, we must solve the larger school staff and labor shortage. Ideally, investments in our school educators and staff will be made in a way that allows local school boards to direct the funding where it is most needed and appropriate for each school district,” Pinkney said in an emailed statement.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox talks about a salary hike for teachers, at Centennial Jr High School in Kaysville, on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022.

Cox’s education budget also includes a 5% increase in Utah’s per-pupil funding, which carries another $200 million price tag. In reality, Cox’s budget increases per-student funding by 1.6%, as lawmakers are already required by law to cover any inflationary increases in the budget and enrollment growth, which accounts for the other 3.4% increase.

Funding education is always a huge part of Utah’s annual budget considerations, but this year Cox and lawmakers are planning to take a big swing at tax relief, proposing nearly $1 billion in cuts and other measures.

Earlier this year, lawmakers dropped Utah’s income tax rate from 4.95% to 4.85%. Cox proposes cutting the rate to 4.75%, which carries a price tag of approximately $190 million.

Cox also wants to spend $400 million to send taxpayers a one-time rebate check. Every taxpayer will get at least $100, but those at the higher end of the income spectrum will get much more, equal to about 6% of the taxes they paid in the previous year. Taxpayers with an income of more than $178,000 per year would receive a rebate of more than $1,300.

The tax cut mania is fueled by the state’s massive budget surpluses. Utah has an estimated $1.85 billion in extra ongoing and more than $2.8 billion in one-time revenue to spend next fiscal year.

Those tax cuts will come at the expense of potential funding for education. Most of Utah’s extra money is in the Income Tax Fund — formerly known as the Education Fund. Utah’s Constitution says all income taxes collected by the state must pay for public and higher education and some social programs. Tax cuts like those proposed by Cox must come out of that pot of cash.