Even if the controversial school voucher — or Hope Scholarship — bill wins full approval from the Utah Legislature this year, it will be dead upon arrival at the governor’s desk (so long as it fails to get approved by a veto-proof majority).

Gov. Spencer Cox told reporters during his monthly PBS Utah news conference on Thursday that even though he supports a school choice voucher system, he would veto HB331 — saying now is not the time.

What needs to come first, he said, is higher pay for Utah teachers.

“I’m all in on vouchers. But we have a long way to go before we get there,” Cox said. “I want to get there. I believe in vouchers. I can’t wait to get there. But now is not the time.”

The governor said Utah’s starting teacher salary is about $43,000 and the average salary for teachers in the state is just north of $50,000, which is too low especially when considering the state’s soaring home prices.

“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. That’s not OK,” Cox said.

Utah’s current teacher salary is “actually a significant improvement” from years past, “and it tells you how far we have to go.”

“When teachers are making $60,000 a year to start, I will fully support vouchers,” he said.

When a reporter pressed Cox on whether he would veto the bill if it lands at his desk, Cox replied, “Yeah. Yeah I would.”

The Hope Scholarship bill, sponsored by Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, would give parents what its supporters say is more choice over how taxpayer money is used for their children’s education — a means tested scholarship that could be used for private school tuition, home-school pods and home schoolers. State funding would be capped at $36 million in the inaugural year of the program.

Those with higher household incomes would also be eligible for scholarships, although lesser in amount. For instance, a family of four whose annual household income is 555% of the federal poverty guidelines — $152,625 — would be eligible for a scholarship of about $3,000 annually.

Overall, Cox said he’s supportive of the concept.

“I am an advocate for choice,” the governor said. “I think parents should be able to use taxpayer money in other ways.” He added Utah has an “incredible” charter school system. “We have more choice than we’ve ever had before, and I think that’s good. I think that’s positive.”

The governor said he will “at some point” be willing to support vouchers in Utah.

“But that point is not now,” he said, “because we are underfunding our schools. You can’t take money that could go to our schools and allow it to go to private schools when you’re not fully funding the education system in our state.”

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during his monthly news conference at PBS Utah at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Before he was asked specifically about whether he would veto HB331, Cox told reporters he wants to “make sure” Utah is prioritizing its teachers, especially in wake of the pandemic.

“Teachers were the ones that bore the brunt of making sure our schools were open. Teachers were the ones who allowed for in-person learning to happen,” Cox said. “And teachers, like many other professionals right now, are not feeling great. They’re struggling. It’s been a long two years.”

During the Utah Legislature’s 2022 session, Cox said there are “lots of bills out there that seem to be kind of pummeling or piling on our teachers right now, and I just hope the Legislature will be very careful and very cautious” as they move those bills forward “in a way that is respectful of our teachers.”

Is the Hope Scholarship headed to a dead end?

Bill sponsor Pierucci, in a prepared statement to the Deseret News, said the governor’s strong early stance against her bill won’t change her efforts to fine tune and move the bill forward.

HB331 hasn’t yet made it to the House floor. It won committee approval on a 6-5 vote — despite concerns about constitutionality and accountability — only two days ago.

Since that committee hearing, Pierucci said she’s been working on a new version of the bill that would “incorporate additional accountability and assessment measures for individuals who receive the scholarship. In addition, this scholarship opportunity will be available not only based on an individual’s income level but will be expanded as an option for students who have been bullied and are seeking alternative options for a safe educational experience.”

Utah school choice moves ahead as opponents question state money going to faith-based schools

“In regards to the governor’s comments today, I’ve been communicating with his staff for the past several weeks, even prior to the bill being public to work to find common ground on this issue,” Pierucci said. “His comments today do not change the legislative process or change my commitment to fine tuning this policy and finding better ways to empower parents and better meet the education needs of Utah’s students. I hope he will keep an open mind in reviewing the final policy proposal in this bill.”

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said in a media availability Thursday afternoon that Cox isn’t alone in having concern about Utah’s teacher salaries.

“We all are concerned,” he said, but added it’s possible depending on how much the scholarship is per student that there would be money left inside of the public education system even if a student takes half of the money for a scholarship. That money “could be spread amongst all the other teachers to either increase their salaries, or actually reduce classroom size,” Adams said.

The bill’s Senate sponsor, Senate Majority Assistant Whip Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, said talks are “ongoing” and “everything is on the table” for possible changes to the bill to address concerns.

“Education begins in the home,” Cullimore said, defending the bill. “And we see the most success with students in any education setting, public or otherwise, where there is support at home. So the point of this bill is saying, ‘We’ve had to recognize that over the past two years, let’s shift our focus to their parents and let them make the call for what’s best for their child.’”

Cullimore said the bill “isn’t an indictment on public education” and not an attempt to pull money away from the state’s public education system. “It’s quite the opposite,” he said.

Asked if it’s possible the bill could see veto-proof majority support in the Senate, Adams said it’s too early to say given the bill hasn’t even been considered by the full House yet.

“We’ll see as it gets refined where the support is,” Adams said.

Voucher detractors applaud Cox

The Hope Scholarship’s opponents lauded the governor’s promise to veto the bill should it land on his desk.

If he does, “then he truly is supporting the majority of students and families in Utah that attend and benefit from Utah public schools,” said Brad Asay, president of American Federation of Teachers Utah.

“This proposed legislation is not in harmony with the long-standing support Utahns have for our public schools,” Asay said. “I applaud the governor for his statement and hope that legislators will oppose this bill and continue to support our public school so that there will be no need for a veto.”

Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, also praised the governor’s comments, saying he’s “absolutely right” money shouldn’t be taken from schools and allowed to go to private schools while Utah’s education system continues to be underfunded.

“Gov. Cox recognizes what educators and families have known for years, that ‘we are underfunding our schools,’” Matthews said.

That is one of the “many reasons” the UEA opposes vouchers, Matthews said.

“We appreciate Gov. Cox’s acknowledgement of the incredible work accomplished by our Utah teachers over the past two years,” she said. “He also appropriately recognized the extreme stress our educators are feeling right now. The governor is absolutely correct when he says our lawmakers must be more respectful and supportive of our teachers when proposing legislation.”

House Democrats issued a statement Thursday stating their caucus stands “united” against HB331

“Although the bill purports to give Utah students more education choices, this idea is significantly flawed,” House Democrats said. “It lacks accountability to ensure public dollars are well spent, and it lacks accountability that students will have equal access to opportunities for a good education, including special education.”

The bill would also “deprive” Utah’s education fund of $36 million a year “in critical funds for our already deeply underfunded public education system.”

“The vast majority of Utahns want to invest more in our children through public education,” House Democrats said, “not undermine our public schools.”