In a time of turmoil over public schools and how they are run, it is perhaps unsurprising that a state would consider a school choice bill and that a governor would threaten a veto. But the reasoning that Utah's governor gave for his veto might be the strangest one yet.
Spencer Cox, a Republican, has served as Utah's governor for just over a year. Despite threatening to veto a school choice bill recently passed by his state's legislature, he says he supports the concept. "I am an advocate for choice," Cox said in a press conference earlier this month. "I think parents should be able to use taxpayer money in other ways."
But his complaints have nothing to do with the bill in question, H.B. 331. "I'm all in on vouchers. But we have a long way to go before we get there," Cox further explained. "With the price of housing, with inflation happening right now, I don't want to live in a state where teachers can't buy a home… When teachers are making $60,000 a year to start, I will fully support vouchers."
Currently, the average starting salary for Utah teachers is around $35,700. An increase of more than 70-percent per teacher would constitute a drastic realignment in education funding since the state average teacher salary is only $50,000. By increasing the starting salary to $60,000, Utah would be paying its starting teachers more than any other state in the country, despite having a cost of living slightly below the national average.
Despite Cox's characterization, H.B. 331 is not truly a "voucher" program: Like other programs around the country, it utilizes education savings accounts (ESAs), in which parents of students are allowed to use state money on educational expenses for their children. Families qualify for a portion of the money the state would otherwise spend on their education determined by a sliding scale based on their income. Families earning up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line would receive twice the amount that the state spends per student, and the multiplier decreases from there. Parents may spend the money on books, tutoring, outside lessons, or tuition to a private school.
It is entirely possible that H.B. 331 is not the right option for parents of Utah students. And it is also possible that Utah teachers should make more money: Despite a cost of living near to the national average, Utah's average teacher salary is more than $10,000 below the national average. But these are entirely separate issues, and Cox's attempt to tie them together is disingenuous. If, as he claims, he is a supporter of school choice, then he should either sign the bill or indicate why it fails on that metric. Then, he can make the case for increasing teacher pay. Making one dependent upon the other undermines the seriousness of both issues.