Utah’s thriving economy complicates teacher pay challenge

Written by: Peter Reichard

It’s usually a simple equation. If you want high-performing schools, you need high-performing teachers. The question – particularly for a fast-growing state like Utah – is how to attract and retain them.
In its new report, Apples to Apples? How Teacher Pay in Utah Stacks Up to the Competition, Utah Foundation reveals that average teacher pay in our state is well below the national average and at the bottom of the eight Mountain States.
But averages give you only a surface glance. When factoring in experience and credential levels, Utah rises to the middle of the Mountain States. As to cost of living, Utah also stands roughly among the mid-range of the Mountain States.
Relative to our neighborhood, teacher pay in Utah appears somewhat competitive. So attracting and retaining teachers should be no problem, right?
Well, in a fast-growing state like ours, there is an ever-expanding student population, which drives new classrooms and the need for additional teachers. And the proportion of teachers coming through traditional four-year teaching programs – those most likely to stay in the profession long-term – has dropped precipitously in recent years.
Furthermore, no teacher is locked into the profession. Teachers both in Utah and nationally earn about three-quarters of what professionals in the private sector with similar credential levels earn. Some will point out that teachers work fewer days of the year, with summer breaks and school holidays; but it’s not a question of fairness – it’s a question of whether teacher pay is adequate to attract and retain teachers. Twenty years ago, I myself taught for a year. I was looking forward to the summers off, but left the profession entirely because I had college and grad school debt to pay. There were job offers in greener pastures.
To be sure, there are plenty of green pastures in Utah nowadays. Utah’s strong economy holds out a multitude of alternatives for teachers and would-be teachers. In short, the teaching profession is not just in an interstate or interjurisdictional competition. It’s in competition with a far wider range of job opportunities.
In effect, school districts are hit with a double-whammy: The very element driving up the need for more teachers – our state’s growth – makes it harder to attract and retain them, as higher-paying jobs outside of the profession beckon.
It’s not as though teaching per se is an unappealing profession. Ask a newly minted Ph.D. looking to teach at the university level about the limited job prospects. The competition for professorships is fierce, and the desire to stay until retirement by obtaining tenure protection is intense. In short, the picture is completely inverted at the university level, where a combination of prestige, comparatively easy classroom management, flexible hours and – yes, pay – combine to make professorships highly sought-after.
Without a doubt, multiple factors drive teacher shortages in the K-12 environment. But without a doubt, there is a pay level at which teacher shortages would become a non-issue. The question is whether that level is feasible.
During the past couple of years, large districts across Utah have already significantly increased salaries. Even in the private schools, teacher pay is rising; Utah’s Catholic school system is increasing elementary school tuition by about one-third next year, mainly to cover teacher pay raises.
Looking ahead, teacher pay will be a matter of priorities – and that doesn’t just mean raising taxes. Any private sector entity struggling to hire the personnel it needs to thrive would look at its expenditures as a totality. It would look at its long-term capital expenditures. It would look at other operating expenses. It would look at pay in the context of total teacher compensation, with an eye toward creating the most attractive mix of pay and other benefits.
School districts, of course, are not private sector entities, and they operate in a far more constrained context, legally and politically.
Still, policymakers must be careful to evaluate teacher pay within the larger spending context. And the state has a major role to play, because it not only controls levers related to certain benefits, it is also provides a significant portion of the education funds that cover teacher salaries.

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