Gov. Cox signs bill for ‘Utah Fits All’ scholarship program, teacher raises

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Students and teachers gathered for a photo inside the Utah State Capitol. The Utah Fits All scholarship is being discussed this session. (Utah Senate)

Governor Cox signed the bill approving Funding for Teacher Salaries and Optional Education Opportunities on Jan. 28, 2023.

Regarding the bill, he released a statement commending the legislature for supporting the teacher raises. He said they were “especially appreciative of our teachers and education leaders who helped push for more accountability measures which were not included in the original bill.

Governor Cox signed HB 215 this afternoon, one of two bills that were passed through both the Utah House of Representatives and the Utah Senate. These are the first two bills that were passed and signed during the 2023 General Legislative Session. (Joe Wirthlin)

House Bill 215, which passed through the House of Representatives with a vote of 54-20 and the Senate with a vote of 20-8 with one abstaining, has two major parts: increasing teacher salaries and creating a voucher program to help pay for private schools.

The first part of the bill, increasing teacher salaries, will grant a raise of $8,400 for each educator, including classroom and preschool teachers, librarians, guidance counselors and psychologists hired by the school. The second part of the bill grants an $8,000 scholarship for each eligible student to attend a private school of their parents’ choice.

Emily Syphus, a member of the Tooele School Board, said it should be two separate bills instead of combined into one. “‘Oh look, we’re helping teachers by passing this bill’ when really, teachers do not want it,” Syphus said of the legislature.

Public schools, which are funded by the state, have district school boards that work together to allocate government funding to each school within their district. These district school boards report to the Utah State Board of Education to ensure that they are meeting state mandates. Charter schools have their own charter school boards but are still required to report to the USBE.

Private schools do not need to do that. Syphus said that the government “will be taking public money and using it to supplement” the private schools, with which they are free to do “whatever they want.”

Annette M. Warnick, founder and current head of Arches Academy, a private school in Orem, gave support for the bill before it was signed, and said their school was looking forward to serving scholarship students.

In her statement, she said the school believes that raising teachers’ salaries will help “retain and invite more teachers to the profession.” The statement also added that the bill would allow parents “more autonomy” in choosing which school their children should attend, to best fit their individual needs.

Annette M. Warnick gave this statement in regards to HB 215. Arches Academy in Orem costs families roughly $1,000 per student per month. (Made in Canva by Joe Wirthlin)

BYU sophomore Chandler Sosa, who went to private school during his senior year of high school, said this bill will “increase transparency and put the money and decision-making power closer to the people.” Sosa also added that the Alpine School District appeared to show favoritism towards students living in Alpine, rather than the students living in Orem, who are also part of the Alpine School District.

Not all private schools are as supportive of the bill. Jordan Long, administrator for the Liahona Preparatory Academy, while “extremely grateful” for those trying to increase parents’ choices when it comes to their children’s education, was concerned about “how the government would be able to control what they do here at the school” with the provided funds.

Jordan Long gave this statement in regards to HB 215. Liahona Preparatory Academy in Pleasant Grove costs families roughly $130 per student per month. (Joe Wirthlin)

Syphus said that the price of these private schools is going to be more than the $8,000 allotted to families. She also said that “it doesn’t stop any private schools from raising their tuition to make up the difference.” The average price of private Utah K-12 schools is $10,937 per year. While 20 of the 35 private schools reviewed cost less than $8,000, these schools could still potentially raise their prices now that students can all afford $8,000 to use for education.

BYU freshman Jacob Macdonald, who went to a public school in Utah, said he was curious to know where they would be getting the funds for this voucher. Macdonald said, “I’m always dubious when they’re like, ‘And then everyone gets money.'”

The funding for this bill comes from the Utah State Income Tax Fund, with an initial cost of $41.5 million and an ongoing cost of $42.5 million annually. The Alliance for a Better Utah has sent out a call for funds of their own to send messages to swing districts “so voters know how their politician voted.”

Members of the Utah House of Representatives listen to a proposed piece of legislation. HB 215 was discussed over a period of nine days before being voted on by both the House and the Senate. (Utah Senate)

Syphus said that ever since she had been a part of the education system, the idea of student vouchers was considered. A previous bill, which was signed in February of 2007 and only provided student vouchers, allowed for a graduated voucher plan based off of family income, rather than the blanket payment now being offered to all eligible families. The 2007 bill was vetoed by Utah citizens in November 2007 by a margin of 62.14%-37.86%.

Governor Cox expressed his desire to make 2023 “the year of the teacher,” and invited the Utah legislature to help him make that possible in his State of the State address on Jan. 19.

“As a parent, I understand the feeling of wanting to make sure that your child gets the best situation for them,” Syphus said. “I’m appreciative that teacher salaries are getting looked at. I’m very sad that they aren’t being looked at separately, as they deserve the chance to be discussed as a separate issue from school vouchers.”

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