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In our opinion: Utah teacher shortage needs less discussion and more action

Envision Utah has suggested starting pay needs to increase by as much as 55 percent, while median teacher salaries need to be adjusted upward by as much as 68 percent.
Envision Utah has suggested starting pay needs to increase by as much as 55 percent, while median teacher salaries need to be adjusted upward by as much as 68 percent.
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For more than a decade it’s been clear that aggressive action is needed to address a growing shortage of teachers in Utah schools, and it’s been abundantly clear that raising teacher pay is a critical component of recruiting and retaining qualified educators. Now, another study on teacher compensation is underway, and while it may offer valuable direction, the state needs to move forward from the posture of continuing to study the issue and passively contemplating solutions.

What is needed, and soon, is a comprehensive strategy that outlines specific steps to raise compensation to a level that will bring long-term stability to the education workforce. It will require a significant investment of money — a reality that budgeters, legislators, policy-makers and, yes, taxpayers, need to recognize and accept.

Just how much of an investment may be clearer as a result of a study underway by Envision Utah, a planning entity that has taken on the teacher shortage as a priority issue. The intent is to widely vet the subject among a panel of “education stakeholders” and come up with a set of recommendations to adjust pay levels and address other issues that are deterrents to a teaching career.

Moving forward, it will be necessary to have a specific dollar figure on the table in order to formulate concrete objectives, which have been lacking in past efforts on Capitol Hill. Preliminarily, Envision Utah says data suggests it would take "a 40–55 percent, increase in starting salaries and a 38–68 percent increase in median salaries" to reach competitive levels.

Several school districts have been acting on their own to inch toward higher compensation levels, but a statewide effort is necessary to ensure across-the-board equality. Allowing well-heeled districts with higher tax bases to slowly attain an upper hand in attracting and retaining top teachers would violate the long-held ethic, and constitutional directive, that all students have access to a quality education.

Envision Utah deserves credit for taking a granular look at just why prospective teachers choose other professions, and why many of those who do begin teaching careers choose to opt out after only a few years. The data, however, has been clear for some time. Low levels of compensation compared with other career tracks beginning with a bachelor’s degree has forever been at the top of the list of why those who would pursue a career in education choose not to. We hope the study helps propel solutions by offering specific numbers and specific ways to get to those numbers though appropriations measures and other potential means of investment.

One idea floating around that deserves more thorough vetting is creating a policy to grant free college education for those who promise to enter the teaching force and stay there for a designated period of time. Surveys already conducted by Envision Utah show high-performing college students would be more likely to pursue a teaching track if more financial aid or scholarship help were available.

New data will be valuable, but the issue has long passed the point of debate and discussion. Schools find it harder every year to staff their classrooms, not because of a lack of understanding, but for the absence of the kind of decisive action that will turn that trend around.