SALT LAKE CITY — Envision Utah is proposing a $60,000 starting teacher salary in the state as a way to keep teachers in the classroom and recruit new educators.
Teacher salary key to retention
Envision Utah’s Teacher Compensation Task Force released a report Wednesday that details the problem. It proposes increased salaries for teachers at all career stages, but especially those just entering the field.
According to the regional planning agency, about 11% of Utah teachers or roughly 3,000 people leave the classroom every year, but only about 1,500 new teachers enter the workforce in Utah each year, leaving a gap of about 1,500 teacher jobs to fill.
Ari Bruening, president and COO of Envision Utah, told guest host Doug Wright on Inside Sources that compensation is the number one priority for attracting new teachers and retaining current educators.
“We surveyed college students, and almost half said they thought about teaching. Most of them said the reason they didn’t go into teaching was because of the compensation,” Bruening said during Wednesday’s program.
He added that the group also surveyed former teachers. They said the number one thing that would bring them back to teaching is compensation, said Bruening.
Envision Utah also pointed to a change in the retirement system back in 2011 that put newer teachers at a disadvantage.
“First, those who entered the classroom before July 2011 receive a ‘Tier 1’ benefit, while newer teachers receive a ‘Tier 2’ benefit,” the organization wrote in its report. “Tier 1 teachers receive a higher percentage of their salary as a pension than Tier 2 teachers and can begin receiving their pensions after 30 years of teaching, while Tier 2 teachers must teach 35 years.”
The difference in eligibility adds up to as much as $200,000 in retirement income, Envision Utah said.
Comparing apples to apples
Critics sometimes argue teachers get summers off and can work seasonal jobs to make up for the difference in pay between their careers and other industries. Envision Utah said that argument doesn’t compare apples to apples.
“Even if their summer break lasted a full three months instead of the nine or ten weeks that it actually lasts, it’s difficult to identify seasonal work that could provide the same level of monthly compensation that teachers get the rest of the year,” the agency wrote.
The agency also addressed the suggestion that teachers be given more “contract days” to work as a means of paying them more. A Utah Education Policy Center study that found around half of all teachers ranked summers off as among the strongest reasons why they remain in the profession.
“While providing teachers the option to work more days may be a vehicle for increasing compensation, increasing contract days for all teachers would also risk disrupting the teacher workforce and exacerbating the teacher shortage even further,” the report continued.
The bottom line
Envision Utah’s proposal includes raising starting salaries for all new teachers to an average of $60,000, growing to around $110,000 over their career. It also calls for raising the salaries of existing teachers to match the same pay scale.
The organization also recommends adjusting retirement benefits accordingly — suggesting that a large retirement benefit is less important if salaries are more attractive overall.
“Higher salaries with a lesser retirement will be more attractive to prospective teachers who are more concerned about salary than retirement,” the report stated.
“The pension teachers receive is a great benefit,” Bruening said, “but it’s not attracting people into the profession.”
Envision Utah estimates these changes would cost the state around $500 to $600 million each year.
“That’s still a big number,” Bruening said. “We did not look at how exactly we should pay for this, but there are lots of options that could be on the table, everything from the state to the local districts.”
Bruening said Envision Utah surveyed state residents who say some increase in funding for teachers is needed, but they want to know if the increased funding will make it to teachers.
Wright asked Bruening what the desired outcome of the group’s proposal was.
“We hope that those who have the power to make policy will take this and recognize that this is a goal that we have to get to if we want to attract and retain our best and brightest,” he said. “And think through different ways for how we can get there. And there are lots of different routes to get there. I think it’s doable.”
Educators are applauding the study done by Envision Utah, saying they agree teachers need to be better compensated. However, they have serious doubts about whether or not school districts would be able to afford a $60,000 starting salary.
Just this last summer, the Salt Lake Education Association had to fight to get a new teacher’s pay to just over $48,000. So, when association president James Tobler hears it should be boosted by an additional 12 thousand, he doesn’t think it’s feasible.
“As much as I wish that it was, it’s not,” Tobler says.
He and other educators say the real problem lies with the state government. Tobler believes legislators will have to make major changes to how districts get funded before they could even approach Envision Utah’s proposed figure.
Tobler adds, “There’s a huge disconnect with our legislature and education. They require programs, but then don’t fund them. We’re definitely feeling stretched in our schools.”
In smaller districts, the problem is even more pronounced. Wayne School District Superintendent John Fahey says they don’t have as much of a chance to raise money through bonds or property tax increases because property values are much lower there.
“We only have 2500 people who live in our county. Most of the land is government land, either federal or state,” Fahey says.
He also questions whether or not Utahns would want to support a tax increase, even if the revenue goes to a worthy cause, like education.
“The state has talked in the past about equalizing some of the poor rural districts so that we have additional funds from the state, but, nothing has come out of that.”
Contributing: Curt Gresseth and Paul Nelson
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