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School vouchers and teacher pay raises are on Utah lawmakers’ minds this session

The Utah House was in session on the first day of the 2023 Utah legislative session on Tuesday, Jan. 17, in Salt Lake City.
Briana Scroggins
special to KUER
The Utah House was in session on the first day of the 2023 Utah legislative session on Tuesday, Jan. 17, in Salt Lake City.

Utah lawmakers say education will be one of their priorities in the 2023 legislative session. Two big topics on the table include teacher pay raises and school vouchers.

Funding and School Choice

Gov. Spencer Cox’s proposed budget for the 2024 fiscal year includes a $6,000 salary and benefits increase for teachers. The Utah House majority caucus and Senate majority caucus both said bumping up teacher compensation was a priority for this legislative session.

That pay raise is being tied to the issue of “school choice” or school vouchers. Republican Rep. Candice Pierucci is sponsoring HB215, otherwise known as “Funding for teacher salaries and optional education opportunities.” The bill would both raise teacher salaries and create the “Utah Fits All Scholarship Program.” Through the scholarship program, parents would be able to apply to get public funds to pay for their child to go to a private school or do homeschooling.

Voucher programs have been implemented in other states, and proponents say it gives parents more control, so their child can attend a school that works best for them.

“Representatives, I personally believe that when it comes to education, one size does not fit all,” Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson said during his opening day speech. “Let’s provide all students and their parents — regardless of zip code, regardless of wealth or abilities — the opportunity to learn in a way that makes sense for them. And let’s make sure Utah education fits all.”

Pierucci sponsored a school choice bill during the 2022 legislative session that failed to pass the Utah House. That bill scaled the scholarship amount based on family income and gave students from lower-income families more than students from wealthier families.

Pierucci’s bill this year does not have that same scale. Instead, all students would be eligible for up to $8,000. However, it does outline that lower-income families will be given preference.

The state’s largest teacher union, the Utah Education Association, came out against Pierucci’s voucher bill last year and is opposed to it again this year. The association’s president Renée Pinkney said a voucher program would take money away from public education and give it to private schools, which are not accountable to taxpayers in the same way that public schools are.

“We do not want that funding increase to be coupled with vouchers. Two separate issues, two separate debates and we would like to have them separated,” Pinkney said.

School safety

Wilson said in his opening remarks that significant effort and investment is required to keep kids safe.

“We will implement policies and fund initiatives to improve school safety across Utah,” Wilson said.

HB 61, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, would create a school security task force and require all high schools to have a school resource officer.

HB 140, sponsored by Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, would require public schools to have a plan in the event of an “active threat,” like an active shooter, and train students on what those protocols are. Many Utah schools already practice similar drills, but this would make it required.

Teen centers

Legislative leaders and advocates have also discussed helping put teen centers in all of the state’s high schools. These centers would be aimed at helping at-risk youth, especially those that lack access to stable housing.

“Let’s work together to provide additional mental health resources to Utah’s rising generation by providing funding for teen centers across the state,” Wilson said.

Transgender students

One of the most controversial bills of the 2022 legislative session centered on transgender student-athletes. This year, there’s a new bill concerning transgender students on the table.

SB 100, written by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross requires schools to get permission from parents before updating a transgender student’s records with any information regarding their gender identity.

What teachers want

Pinkney said one of the Utah Education Association’s biggest priorities this legislative session is education funding. The association wants to increase the amount schools get for each student, the number of paid professional hours that educators get, funding for students at-risk of academic failure and expanded access to full-day kindergarten.

“That means that our students’ needs are being met. That means that we have lower class sizes so that teachers can actually get to know their students,” Pinkney said.

Some educators reported feeling attacked during the 2022 session because of some of the controversial education bills and conversations surrounding education. Pinkney worries this session will see a repeat of that, especially in conversations surrounding curriculum transparency and education funding.

But Pinkney wants teachers to look at the big picture, and remember that a lot can happen: bills get changed and not every bill that gets introduced gets passed.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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