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How can Utah pay, retain teachers better? Here’s what GOP lawmakers want to do


How can Utah pay, retain teachers better? Here’s what GOP lawmakers want to do

Jan 31, 2024 | 9:23 pm ET
By Katie McKellar
How can Utah pay, retain teachers better? Here’s what GOP lawmakers want to do
A classroom with a teacher's desk is pictured. Utah lawmakers on Wednesday, Jan. 31 highlighted a slate of bills focused on increasing teacher pay and retention. (Photo by Richard Ross via Getty Images)

Eight House and Senate Republican lawmakers on Wednesday highlighted a slate of bills aimed at improving teacher retention and recruitment.

The bills — including one to reward “top-performing teachers” with bonuses that could bring their pay up to $100,000 a year — have the backing of powerful GOP legislative leaders and will likely be prioritized during the Utah Legislature’s 45-day session that’s now in its third week. 

“We’re doing some really amazing things regarding education this year,” Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, told reporters Wednesday, standing in front of a group of lawmakers sponsoring the roster of bills. 

Adams said Utah lawmakers are committed to continuing to up investment in education and teachers. He pointed to recent years of record spending on public education that have brought Utah’s starting teacher salaries higher than its neighboring states, but lawmakers want to do more. 

“Utah’s teachers are the best in the nation,” said House Speaker Mike Schultz, who did not attend Wednesday’s press conference but issued a prepared statement. “We want to keep it that way by passing policies to improve teacher retention and recruitment and make teaching a more desirable career path. Our students, teachers and future generations deserve nothing less.”

Utah’s public education union, the Utah Education Association, has not yet taken a position on most of the bills paraded Wednesday, except for supporting HB221, a bill to encourage student teachers to complete their education by providing a stipend per semester, per student teacher. 

However, at least one bill is giving the teacher union pause. UEA President Renée Pinkney told Utah News Dispatch she has concerns about SB173, which would create a new program to give “high-performing” teachers up to $20,000 in bonuses.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, would use $200 million to create an optional program for school districts and principals to determine which teachers would be eligible for tiered bonuses of up to $20,000. 

The bill would require school districts that opt in to use assessment methods that include “student growth or achievement measures, professional evaluations, student or parent surveys and faculty peer reviews.” 

“The biggest part of this bill will identify the top performing teachers in this state, who are leaders in this school, mentors to their colleagues,” Fillmore said. “We’re going to reward those teachers with bonuses of $20,000, so that a teacher who is mid-career in Utah, would be able to know when they start, ‘If I am successful at this job … I can earn $100,000 a year.’” 

“We want every teacher to know,” Fillmore added, “that teaching is a six-figure profession.”

Adams highlighted Fillmore’s bill in his opening day speech on the Senate floor. 

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams (front), speaks at a news conference at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City with other Republican lawmakers.
Utah Senate President Stuart Adams (front), speaks at a news conference at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City with other Republican lawmakers highlighting a slate of seven bills aiming to increase teacher pay and retention on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024. (Katie McKellar/Utah News Dispatch)

However, Pinkney said she’s concerned about the practical application of Fillmore’s bill, noting it’s difficult to determine how teacher performance should be measured. She also worries about creating a program that could create a competitive climate. 

Though the bill would leave it up to school districts to decide how to measure teacher performance, she said there are still a lot of questions about how such a program would play out. 

“This just isn’t traditionally how we have worked in our public schools,” she said. “Educators tend to work together to be very collaborative, and this feels like it would be more competitive. … I would have real concerns and questions about how reliable and valid this would be.”

Overall, though, Pinkney said she appreciates Utah lawmakers’ focus on finding ways to improve teacher pay and retention. “I believe the intention is positive,” she said, but intention could differ from what sort of practical impact some bills would have on teachers. 

“Educators are lifelong learners, and we want to do better. We want to be better,” she said. “We know many (lawmakers’) intentions are good, but … the devil is in the details.” 

How does Utah’s teacher pay, retention compare? 

Last year, the Utah Legislature funded a $6,000 pay increase for educators — but made it contingent on the passage of a “school choice” bill that public education advocates opposed to allow eligible parents to use $8,000 in state funds to send their kids to private school, home school or other private options. 

That $6,000 pay increase provided a significant bump to teachers across Utah. As of last year, eight Utah school districts began paying teachers at least $60,000 a year, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Envision Utah 

During the 2023-24 school year, Utah’s average starting teacher salary was $55,983, according to a December report by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. 

That same report found Utah’s average teacher salary ranks in the middle when compared to other states, while its starting salary ranks second highest. However, when accounting for inflation, Utah’s teacher salary has remained “relatively flat over time,” and the state’s teachers earn 12.4% to 34.2% less than workers in other occupations that require a bachelor’s degree. 

Utah isn’t struggling as much with teacher shortages compared to other states, but it could still improve, according to a recent Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute report. New teachers are less likely to stay. 

The report cited a 2021 survey that found two-thirds of school districts did not report difficulty in retaining teachers, while the other third reported retention as an issue. Retention rates vary across school districts, from 82.2% in Logan City School District to 95.4% in North Summit School District, according to the report. 

A recent survey by the regional planning nonprofit Envision Utah of 4,000 Utah college students found 36% said they decided not to go into teaching because they considered salaries to be too low. Slightly more, 37%, said they had other interests, 22% said they believed they’d have greater impact in other fields, 15% cited few opportunities for advancement, and 12% said there’s “not enough respect” for teachers. 

While pay is certainly a factor when it comes to teacher retention, Pinkney said in recent years there has also been legislation that can cause a “chilling effect” on teachers by placing tighter controls on what can or can’t be discussed in classrooms. For example, she pointed to a bill making its way through the Legislature to make it easier to ban “sensitive materials” in classrooms statewide

That, along with large class sizes, limited resources and continued impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic is weighing on teachers, Pinkney said. 

“You know, I recently received an email (from) a teacher who’s been teaching for 18 years that said, ‘I can’t do it anymore. It’s going to take all of my resilience and grit just to get to the end of the year, and then I’m going to quit.’”

The union has asked for a 12% increase to the state’s weighted pupil unit, or the per-pupil rate used to calculate how much money each school should receive. Lawmakers are still working through the state’s budget, but Gov. Spencer Cox only proposed a 5% increase, to UEA’s disappointment.

“Our educators are beyond their capacity,” Pinkney said, “and they just can’t meet the needs of all of the students with the level of education funding that we are being provided.” 

Slate of teacher pay, retention bills

The bills lawmakers highlighted on Wednesday included: 

  • SB52, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, to use $139,300 to expand the state’s current Educator Salary Adjustment Program to include regional education service agencies and increase pay for more teachers, 
  • SB137, sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, would use $10 million in one-time money to set up an “alternative teacher evaluation process” and more options and funding for training. It aims to ensure teachers have support, training and tools to excel and be successful.
  • SB173, sponsored by Fillmore, would use $200 million in one-time money to create an optional program for school districts and to reward “top-performing” teachers with bonuses that could bring their salaries up to $100,000. It would require school districts to create an assessment process to help principles identify eligible teachers using methods that include “student growth or achievement measures, professional evaluations, student or parent surveys and faculty peer reviews.” 
  • SB159, sponsored by Sen. David Buxton, would create a three-tier teacher training pilot program to help teachers manage behavioral issues in classrooms. Teachers would receive compensation for every tier completed, up to $1,000 total.
  • HB105, sponsored by Rep. Kera Birkeland, would enact an income tax credit for out-of-pocket expenses incurred by an educator for classroom supplies. It would decrease revenues to the state’s income tax fund, which funds education priorities, by about $25.9 million, according to the bill’s fiscal note. 
  • HB221, sponsored by Rep. Karen Peterson, R-Clinton, would use $8.4 million in one-time money to encourage student teachers to finish their education by providing a stipend to those who are currently student teachers and enrolled in an educational program that leads to becoming a teacher. The UEA sought and supports this bill. 
  • HB431, sponsored by Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, would create a hotline at the Utah State Board of Education for teachers to call when facing administrative hurdles and red tape, requires school districts to provide at least three weeks of paid maternity leave, and would use $4.8 million to create a new program for local school districts to reward and pay teachers more.