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Debate over Salt Lake teacher compensation reveals our backward priorities

Underinvesting in our teachers is the wrong way to build our future.

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Edison Elementary School kindergartener Rebeca Prado sits behind a protective screen as she works on English skills with her teacher Veronica Hernandez at the school in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 23, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

While it seems that the state Legislature and the board of the Salt Lake City School District have come to an arrangement regarding the return to in-person instruction, I remain troubled by the way House Speaker Brad Wilson held the compensation of our teachers hostage in his negotiations with the school board. Utah can ill afford to convey a lack of appreciation to our our already undercompensated teachers, particularly at this moment in time. 

A quick review of the facts: The Legislature laudably approved a $1,500 bonus for all Utah teachers as a reward for their extra efforts during the pandemic. Unfortunately, at the last minute, Wilson inserted a provision that would prevent the bonus from going to any teacher in a district who had not returned to in-person instruction by Jan. 19, 2021 — a move clearly aimed at Salt Lake City School District teachers.

The problem? Teachers had absolutely no say in the decision of when to return to in-person instruction, a decision that resided entirely with the school board. While it’s always wrong to penalize people for desired political outcomes over which they have no control, it’s especially ill-advised to use this tactic at a time when our teachers are performing miracles under incredibly challenging circumstances created by the pandemic. 

My wife and I have a kindergartner and a first grader in Salt Lake City School District, and we can personally attest to the amazing ingenuity, devotion and work ethic of their teachers. They have exhibited tremendous grit and creativity in delivering the best possible experience to our children despite enormous challenges outside of their control. We will be forever grateful to them and their colleagues for their devotion and efforts on behalf of our children during this difficult time. I can only imagine how demoralizing Wilson’s talk of excluding them from this bonus was after their incredible efforts in 2020.  

If Wilson or his colleagues doubt that these teachers should be included in the state bonus, even in the absence of a return to in-person instruction, I would invite them to spend a week teaching Zoom kindergarten to 25 5-year-olds. I overhear these class sessions all day, and teaching them is not for the faint of heart. 

The willingness to use this tactic at such an inappropriate time reveals, in my opinion, one of Utah’s greatest weaknesses: the lack of value assigned to our public education system and our teachers. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau recently revealed that Utah came in dead last — 51 out of 51 — of all states and the District of Columbia in education spending on a per pupil basis. According to a 2018 EdBuild study, Utah ranked 46th for teacher pay — even on a cost of living-adjusted basis. And while dollars spent isn’t the only driver of educational quality and outcomes, it is a hugely important one, and it also serves a reliable indicator of the value a state or country places on education. 

This underinvestment will come to haunt us in the future as economic competition with other states and nations intensifies. Utah simply won’t be able to compete with a work force whose potential is left untapped by a substandard public education system, to say nothing of the negative civic and cultural ramifications that will inevitably follow. 

We need leaders who will both talk the talk and walk the walk regarding public education. Wilson’s unfortunate talk toward the teachers of Salt Lake in this case undermined his laudable walk of sending our teachers a bonus. 

I’m encouraged by Governor-elect Spencer Cox’s pledge to create excellent public schools in every zip code, and I’m hopeful his GOP colleagues in the Legislature will help make this pledge a reality. We simply can’t afford to continue underinvesting in our future. 

Davis Bell lives in Salt Lake City with his wife and five children. He works as a software executive and spends his spare time exploring Utah’s amazing outdoors.