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Looking to get the gears moving on education? Start with this important step

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, holds a field hearing on energy and education at Union High School in Roosevelt on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Many public policy problems are difficult and complex, and policymakers have struggled for decades to solve them. But sometimes a structural solution — a “big gear” — can be found that spins all the other little gears to produce real change and improvement.

The “big gear” in education excellence is quite simple — pay teachers more. Among the myriad proposals to boost public education achievement that have been suggested over many years, this is the structural solution that will produce results.

And attracting great people — the best and the brightest — to the teaching profession will make other reforms and innovation easier.

Most Utahns agree that nothing is more important to the future of our children and our state than excellent education that produces a skilled workforce for the high-tech jobs of the 21st century. Less agreement exists on how we go about doing that. But great teachers will find a way. They will overcome large class sizes. They will deal with testing challenges and encourage more parental involvement. They will figure out ways to educate disadvantaged children from difficult home environments. They will inspire students to do their best.

Paying teachers a professional wage that can support a family, elevating the teaching profession as a respected, well-paid career that is critical to our future, is the single most important thing we can do.

Why do we pay the people who teach our children less than we pay an attorney? Or an accountant? Or an engineer? The work teachers do is just as important, or more so.

This discussion is currently relevant because Envision Utah recently released a well-researched report making the case for boosting beginning teacher pay to $60,000 statewide, with opportunities for teachers to earn up to $110,000 annually over the course of a career.

A Utah Foundation study found that, on average, Utah teachers earn 27% less than full-time, college-educated employees in other professions. Many teachers are forced to work a second job. Many teachers will never make a wage that can support a family of five.

At current salaries, teaching is a less attractive profession, and Utah faces a severe teacher shortage. Some 3,000 teachers leave the profession each year and one study found that as many as 42% of teachers quit teaching within five years of starting. Turnover is a major problem.

Research is clear that the right compensation is the most effective way to recruit new teachers, help great teachers stay in the classroom and even help former teachers return to teaching.

I was privileged to co-chair with Hope Eccles the Envision Utah Teacher Compensation Task Force that oversaw development of the “Vision for Teacher Excellence” report, along with 24 other Utah leaders from business, government and education and the Envision Utah staff. Along with higher pay, we recommend a number of other key steps to stabilize and optimize the teaching profession.

Gov. Gary Herbert who, along with his Education Excellence Commission, endorsed the recommendations, said, “If we want to be the strongest economy in the nation, we need to give our kids the best education possible — and Utah’s teachers are key to providing that kind of world-class education. Teachers are deserving of our best efforts.”

Implementing this vision will be a significant lift. Envision Utah projects the costs at roughly $600 million — but it will be a worthwhile investment to become the best school system in the country, even one of the best in the world.

As Utah legislators and our governor tackle tax reform, and all the balls are in the air, this is the ideal time to include the cost of professional teacher salaries in tax reform calculations. I hope substantial teacher salary increases will be included in budgets being prepared for the 2020 legislative session.

Utah is top in the nation in many measures of achievement. No good reason exists that we should not be No. 1 in the most important measure of all — education excellence. It is achievable, but world-class education requires world-class teachers being paid a livable wage.

A. Scott Anderson is CEO and president of Zions Bank.