Alexander Hyres: School vouchers would subsidize Utah’s rich and religious

Teacher pay hike should not be held hostage to a bad idea.

(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.

Last week, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox released a set of proposals for next year’s state budget. They included a pay raise for teachers of $6,000, with $4,600 allocated for salary and another $1,400 for benefits. Given the current state of teacher compensation amidst rising inflation across the world, this is a significant proposal.

It would be an excellent first step towards adequately compensating the state’s teachers for their work. The pandemic and its consequences have made it difficult to attract and retain teachers in our state’s public school classrooms. This proposal would help mitigate those difficulties particularly in under-resourced schools. There’s a catch, though.

Based on reporting by The Tribune, this pay raise could be tied to yet another school voucher proposal. The details of the voucher proposal are fluid; however, this is neither the first time a voucher has been floated nor is Utah the first state to seek out the creation of such a program.

Proponents of this proposal will likely frame it as the expansion of school choice and the free market in education. They will likely frame it as an escape hatch for students who attend under-resourced schools. And, relatedly, they will likely tout the “greater quality” of private schools in the state.

In reality, a system of school vouchers will subsidize schooling for the rich and religious of the state and introduce several thorny issues into the realm of education.

Families and students who already attend private and independent schools in Utah would be eligible for these vouchers. Most, but not all, of these families have the financial resources to attend these schools without the help of vouchers. Providing a voucher to most of these families has the potential to function as an entitlement for the rich.

These vouchers could be used in schools with religious affiliations. I have no issue with the existence of religious schooling. However, I do foresee issues with the separation of church and state if the government becomes involved in subsidizing religious education. The state will be opening themselves up to a number of thorny constitutional issues.

In addition to serving as a subsidy for the rich and religious, there’s a few other underlying issues with this proposal.

First, the creation of a voucher program will not automatically lead to the expansion of enrollment at private and independent schools. Some of the private schools in Salt Lake City have classes with over 30 students. They are unlikely to add more students. Related to that point, these schools are not required to admit students. Outside of the state’s urban areas, there are far fewer private and independent schools.

So not only will this proposal likely subsidize the rich and religious, it will also more likely benefit families and students living in urban areas.

Second, there is a belief that private and independent schooling provide “greater quality.” But what do we mean by quality? Better test scores and greater resources often stand in for a more nuanced conversation about what makes a quality school.

In sum, on the one hand, I applaud Cox for seeking to improve teacher compensation throughout the state. Attracting and retaining teachers is difficult — if not impossible — given how difficult the work can be during normal times. And we have not been living through those times in the past few years.

On the other hand, I would like to see the governor drop the tie between the teacher compensation proposal and the voucher proposal. Teachers’ compensation should not be held hostage in the name of subsidizing the rich and religious throughout the state.

Alexander Hyres

Alexander Hyres, Ph.D., is assistant professor in the history of U.S. education at the University of Utah, College of Education.