Margaret “Maggie” Johnston carefully weighed her career options before graduating from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in education.

When it came time for her student teaching, the lifelong Iowan made bold choices: teaching eight weeks each in New Zealand and Utah’s Canyons School District.

Johnston said she chose to student teach out of state and out of the country because she wanted to experience places she had never been while she was young.

When she completed her training, she returned to Utah to start her career teaching fifth grade at Crescent Elementary School in Sandy.

It wasn’t a coincidence that Johnston landed in Canyons District. For the past five years, the district has developed a working relationship with Iowa State’s School of Education to help cultivate new talent and introduce teacher candidates to Canyons’ schools and Utah’s quality of life.

Iowa State students are invited to perform their student teaching in Canyons’ schools. The district arranges home stays with Canyons community members who rent them rooms at reasonable rates to help curb the cost of their visits.

In past years, district leaders have taken the student teachers river rafting and to Jazz games to get a taste of what Utah has to offer.

Once they have graduated, some, like Johnston, return to Utah because they have established ties to Canyons District’ schools, educators and the communities the district serves.

Johnston said she was impressed with how the district, schools and educators support teachers with instructional coaches and paid training opportunities. Parental support at Canyons’ schools was another plus, she said.

“Canyons had the full package deal for me. It had well-established schools. It had extensive staffs, classroom technology and so much support. What topped it all off was the pay. Canyons just in general, had a lot of things that I wanted, and then the pay was like that additional factor for me,” she said.

First-year teacher Margaret “Maggie” Johnston works with her students at Crescent Elementary in Sandy on Sept. 19, 2023.
First-year teacher Margaret “Maggie” Johnston works with her students at Crescent Elementary in Sandy on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Canyons is one of eight Utah school districts now paying first-year teachers — college graduates who are licensed teachers — at least $60,000 a year. Several other Utah school districts are offering salaries just below that high-water mark.

According to Envision Utah, a private, nonprofit regional planning entity, the other districts paying beginning teachers more than $60,000 this school year are Park City, Logan, Wasatch, South Summit, Tooele, Murray and Ogden.

Given record spending for public education by the Utah Legislature in recent years and local efforts by school districts to support educators who shouldered heavy burdens during and emerging from the pandemic, it is not wholly surprising Utah teacher salaries have increased significantly.

But to a large degree, salaries paid to Utah educators now outstrip their peers in neighboring states, most of which start in the $40,000 to $50,000 range. Denver Public Schools, for instance, starts teachers at $54,141, according to its salary schedule.

Base pay in the Boise School District is $46,811, according to its pay schedule.

Had Johnston stayed in Iowa, her annual starting pay would have been in the $35,000 to $40,000 range with rents comparable to those charged in Salt Lake County “and not getting near as much pay. It’s a shocker,” she said.

What should teachers be paid? Envision Utah to convene group to take hard look at teacher pay

Jason Brown, Envision Utah’s vice president of education and communication, said most graduates of teacher education programs end up teaching close to where they grew up unless there are more lucrative offers in a nearby state, such as Utah educators who have commuted to Evanston, Wyoming, or some in southern Utah who have elected to teach in Nevada.

Raising teacher salaries in Utah helps the profession compete for talent with industries that have traditionally paid better, he said.

“We want to get to the point where they (college students) don’t rule out teaching,” Brown said of the urgency to raise Utah’s teacher salaries.

For licensed educators seeking their first teaching position or mid-career educators considering a change, Canyons’ salary schedule attracts attention, said Kelly Tauteoli, who recruits educators for the district’s secondary schools.

“As I go around to the fairs in the state and and outside of the state, the thing that draws them initially is the salary,” she said.

“You see these teacher candidates walking by and looking at the salaries so that is huge. That’s how you get a teacher candidate in the door, with your salary.”

Tauteoli said the district’s benefits and teacher supports help to get teachers under contract. “It doesn’t hurt that we have beautiful facilities,” she said.

Young people are especially attracted to Utah’s many and varied recreational opportunities, whether they enjoy skiing, hiking or mountain biking.

In 2019, Envision Utah convened educators, policymakers and business leaders and others as the state experienced a reduction in college students training to become teachers and an upswing in teacher retirements.

They asked probing questions such as what would it take to raise Utah teacher salaries to a living wage and what would it take to retain teachers or reengage teachers who left the profession?

According to the Living Wage Calculator created by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers, a household of two parents and three children with one working adult would need an annual salary of nearly $60,000 to have a living wage based on typical expenses in Utah.

At the time, median teacher salaries were $5,800 short of that mark.

Bit by bit, the state has worked to increase teacher compensation but for some educators, sizable increases in education funding came with strings.

Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature passed HB215, which created a state-funded scholarship program that starting next year will allow eligible parents to use $8,000 in state funds for private school, home schooling or other private educational options. The legislation also funded a $6,000 compensation increase for educators.

Rep. Doug Welton, R-Payson, who is an educator, said tying the pay raise for teachers to the school choice scholarship felt like “one of the largest bribes to pass funding,” but he ultimately voted for it.

The scholarship goes into effect next school year so it is unclear how many parents will apply.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said he recently discussed the scholarship program with House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper.

“I’m really proud of the work we did ... the way we were able to bring that together to stabilize funding for education in the state, increase teacher salaries, and then provide some additional choice for Utahns,” Cox said during the PBS Utah monthly governor’s press conference earlier this week.

Earlier Cox said he would be reluctant to support a scholarship or voucher programs unless starting teacher pay was raised to $60,000. It’s not quite there statewide but increases in teacher pay in recent years have been significant.

First-year teacher Margaret “Maggie” Johnston works with her students at Crescent Elementary in Sandy on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Crescent Elementary School principal Camie Montague said Canyons District’s salary schedule helps her encourage strong teaching candidates who do their student teaching at her school to start their careers in the district.

“It’s definitely a game changer to be able to offer that kind of money, especially for students coming out with student loans and all the things that they had to pay for to get where they’re at,” she said.

Just a few years ago, Utah school districts were competing to raise starting salaries to $50,000 annually. Park City School District’s starting salary is $65,523 for the current school year. It has long been the state’s highest-paying school district.

Tauteoli said she is perhaps more astounded by the increase in salaries since Canyons School District got its start after splitting from the Jordan School District.

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“When we started as a district in the 2009-10 school year, our starting salary was $32,407. In 15 years, we have jumped to that $60,000 range. That is incredible,” she said.

Johnston said she is grateful for a teaching position that pays a living wage and provides a bevy of other supports so she can do what she loves, teach.

Her love for teaching stems from the change she witnesses each school day when “the little light bulb goes off” as students’ abilities flourish and her school becomes a community.

“And, I just love hanging around kids all day,” she said.

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