Why Utah’s GOP lawmakers are tying a school voucher bill to a public school teacher raise

“Educator salary should not come with strings attached to pass a voucher,” the Utah Education Association president wrote to lawmakers.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A packed room listens in as Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, sponsor of HB215, otherwise known as “Funding for teacher salaries and optional education opportunities,” speaks on the bill in committee at the Utah Capitol on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023.

Members of the public swarmed a legislative committee hearing and several overflow rooms at the Utah Capitol Thursday afternoon, eager to weigh in on whether or not Utah parents should be able to use public education funds to pay for private schools in the state.

Utah has gone down this road once before, which resulted in a stinging defeat for lawmakers. In 2007 the Legislature passed a school voucher program, but a petition drive put the issue on the ballot, where voters overwhelmingly rejected it.

House Bill 215, sponsored by Rep. Candace Pierucci, R-Riverton, rebrands vouchers as the “Utah Fits All Scholarship,” but the end result of both is not materially different — the use of public education dollars for private education. Utah Fits is backed by nearly a dozen conservative political groups, including Heritage Action for America, a sister organization to the Heritage Foundation, and Americans for Prosperity.

This is Pierucci’s second attempt to pass a so-called scholarship program. Last year’s “Hope Scholarship Program” never left the Utah House after teachers rallied against the proposal and Gov. Spencer Cox threatened to veto the bill.

This year, Pierucci’s bill has seemingly won support from legislative leadership and her GOP colleagues. School choice was on the list of priorities detailed by House Republicans before the start of the 2023 session. In his opening day address, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, called for lawmakers to pass school choice legislation.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, sponsor of HB215, otherwise known as “Funding for teacher salaries and optional education opportunities,” speaks on the bill in committee at the Utah Capitol during the start of the Legislative session on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023.

In a little-noticed but important change, Pierucci was named as the chair of the House Education Committee, where, as chair, she will decide which bills are added to the committee’s agenda.

This year’s effort by Pierucci takes a carrot-and-stick approach by dangling a pay raise for Utah’s public school teachers, but only if the bill passes. Coupling the two issues together seemingly dares Cox to use his veto pen on the measure, knowing he will be killing his own priority to raise teacher salaries.

“These two are paired together to demonstrate we are focusing on the two most important pieces of education, our teachers and our students,” Pierucci said at Thursday’s committee hearing.

The Utah Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, has come out against HB215, even though doing so puts a pay raise for its members in jeopardy. UEA President Renee Pinkney says the group has a long-standing policy of opposing voucher programs and this legislation is no different.

“HB215 is asking us to compromise our values for an increase in teacher compensation,” Pinkney wrote in a letter to lawmakers shared with The Salt Lake Tribune. “Educator salary should not come with strings attached to pass a voucher bill but should be based on the important and valuable work educators do every day.”

During the crowded hearing, House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, attempted to strip the teacher salaries out of Pierucci’s bill, hoping to put those pay raises in a separate piece of legislation.

“Most people speaking in favor or against this bill are talking about the scholarship and not the teacher raises. I feel these are two separate issues and should have a separate vote,” she said.

The Republican majority on the committee rejected Romero’s proposal.

Many members of the public who spoke in favor of the bill appeared to be part of, or aligned with, organizations pushing for its passage. There were some exceptions like Lisa Travis, who said they work for a Montesorri school in Millcreek.

“Part of our mission is meeting the needs of children with intellectual disabilities. Fifteen to 20 percent of our children have intellectual disabilities, but sometimes they have to go to other schools because the parents can’t afford to keep them enrolled,” Travis said.

The scholarship program would offer $8,000 in taxpayer funds for a student to pay tuition at private schools. That’s nearly double the Weighted Pupil Unit, Utah’s basic measure of per-pupil funding in public schools, currently $4,175. When federal funding is added, that sum rises to a little more than $8,300 per student. Only Idaho spends less per student. The Utah Fits Scholarship does not use any federal funding.

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HB215 carries a $239 million price tag annually beginning in 2025. Most of that money, $197 million, would go toward the salary boost for teachers. Pierucci estimates about 5,000 students annually would utilize the scholarship, which adds $42.5 million to the cost. Last year a one percent boost in per-pupil funding cost about $34 million.

While the 2007 voucher bill was defeated at the ballot box, this year’s bill could avoid that fate altogether. If the bill passes with the support of two-thirds of legislators in both the House and Senate, not only is that enough to overcome a possible veto, it also, by law, blocks any attempt at a referendum.

After more than two hours of discussion, the bill passed out of committee on a 12-4 vote. Republican Reps. Karen Peterson and Susan Pulsipher joined the committee’s two Democrats in voting “no.”