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Solution to Utah’s teacher shortage? Group says raise salaries

By Nichole Whiteley - | Aug 30, 2023

Harrison Epstein, Daily Herald file photo

A sign advertising the hiring of substitute teachers and support staff hangs on a fence in front of Valley View Elementary School in Pleasant Grove on Friday, June 30, 2023.

Each year in Utah, 3,000 teachers leave the profession — and each year, 1,500 to 2,000 students in the state graduate with teaching degrees. That math doesn’t work in teachers’ favor.

The shortage of teachers is an ongoing issue, and in 2019, Envision Utah, a nonprofit organization, created what it calls the Vision for Teacher Excellence to solve the shortage.

After two years of extensive research prior to the formation of the group’s plan, which included looking at various solutions to the shortage, Envision Utah found that the most effective way to increase the number of teachers who stay in the profession is to increase their compensation.

Envision Utah’s original suggestion was that a starting salary for teachers needed to be $60,000 but that was later revised into a range of $60,000 to $70,000 to allow for adjustments within districts for different circumstances. Part of the group’s vision is an ending salary of $110,00 to $125,000 for teachers.

Envision Utah’s goal is to eliminate the state’s teacher shortage by encouraging that more funding be given to the education system for salaries. That would create a competitive, valued profession that would encourage more students to pursue teaching as their career, according to Jason Brown, vice president of education and communication for Envision Utah. It also would encourage teachers to work hard and be the brightest in the profession, he said, as they would be competing with other teachers.

Brown said there has been great progress in these efforts since 2019, when just two districts were reaching a starting pay of $50,000. Now, nine of Utah’s 30 public school districts have a starting salary of $60,000 or more. Envision Utah is still working to get the other districts to raise their teacher salaries, although Brown acknowledged that some districts simply do not have the funding to do so.

He said encouraging school districts to raise teacher salaries to $60,000 in 2019 — when none of them were close to that pay range — was ambitious. However, in just four years, nine districts met or exceeded their vision. Those districts are Canyons, Logan, Murray, Ogden, Park City, Salt Lake City, South Summit, Tooele and Wasatch.

In Utah County, the Alpine, Nebo and Provo school districts have not yet met Envision Utah’s suggested teacher starting salary. Alpine starts salaries at $57,408, Nebo starts at $57,212 and Provo’s base pay is $55,315. Salt Lake City School District has the highest starting salary at $70,338.

The data for Envision Utah’s research is based on public schools, but Brown said, “We think that getting more teachers into the teaching profession is going to help public and private schools alike.”

Envision Utah has not focused on solving the question of how to fund the teacher salary increases it’s calling for. Brown explained, “We did intentionally not address the question of where the money should come from. Part of that was because we wanted to think of this as a vision, a direction we needed to head, not as a policy brief.” He said they want people to agree on a direction the community needs to head in, then have policymakers and elected officials discuss the best way to achieve the goal.

According to Envision Utah, one of the steps to eliminating the teacher shortage is to provide students or prospective teachers pursuing a teaching degree with scholarships. Brown said these could be provided by state funding or the support of a private business. The other steps stated on the group’s website are: “Increase salaries for all teachers, strengthen teacher training and induction and provide flexibility for teachers to work more days.”

The number of students graduating with a teaching degree is significantly lower than the number of teachers leaving the profession each year, causing the teaching shortage. In addition, half of those who become teachers leave the profession after five to eight years, Brown explained. Envision Utah’s website states, “Of 766 teachers who were surveyed when they left the profession, more than half said that better salaries would improve the profession.”

Brown said, “We know that there’s a lot of people in the state who have thought about teaching but ultimately decided, ‘I don’t want to be a teacher,’ and one of the big reasons is because of teacher compensation. So, we would love to get to a point where that’s not the case. Where if people choose not to be teachers, it’s not because of how teachers are paid.”

According to Envision Utah, 59% of new teachers have a teaching degree, but as its website states, “Of course, this does not necessarily mean they’re bad teachers, but they’re entering the classroom with less experience and less training. They require more mentorship and support. They tend to leave the teaching profession at much higher rates, and their students perform worse on standardized tests on average than students of teachers who have education degrees.”

However, Brown said their first goal is to get enough teachers in each school district to fill the shortage. Then, once there is a pool of teachers to choose from, schools could choose those instructors best suited for the students and the school.

Teacher salaries have increased over the years. In 2019, the average salary was $54,000 and by 2022 the average salary was $65,000, according to data presented by Envision Utah. However, the group says other recent impacts need to be accounted for when discussing teacher compensation, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, an increase in inflation, and intense polarization around schools and teachers.

Brown said Envision Utah’s first step was doing its research and finding that raising teacher salary is the best solution to fixing the teacher shortage. Now that they have finished, they are working to educate the public that the teacher shortage exists and that there are not enough people graduating in the teaching profession or from teaching training programs.

“At the end of the day, any funding issue is a public issue,” Brown said, “and it would require public support to be able to make the kinds of investments that would be necessary to make the teaching profession more attractive and competitive.”

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