The state Office of Education will assemble a task force to study and recommend compensation options designed to attract and keep educators in Utah classrooms at a time when the state faces a severe teacher shortage.
Last year, a Utah State University study of teacher supply and demand found that the state needs to crank out an additional 1,175 teachers a year during the next two decades to cover attrition and keep pace with an enrollment boom.
"We need to do whatever we can to attract, retain and reward quality teachers," Assistant Superintendent Ray Timothy told the state Board of Education on Tuesday.
Financial incentives for high-demand positions and rewards for classroom success could be the ticket, he said.
It is a radical concept that has drawn the interest of districts nationwide and the ire of teacher unions leery of discriminating against certain groups of educators.
Most school systems - including Utah's - pay teachers on a "step" system in which teachers start with a base salary their first year, then earn more money for each year they teach and for additional college course work or advanced degrees.
The Utah Education Association is open to new ideas, but teachers must be part of the discussion for any proposal to succeed, said Kaye Chatterton, the UEA's director of teaching and learning.
"We're not unwilling to look at many of the things you're talking about," she said. "Can't we work on these problems together so you don't meet us in opposition [later]?"
During the past several months, Timothy has led groups of legislators, board members and educators to various conferences to study the latest models of teacher pay. The groups agreed that two models have potential for Utah: Denver Public Schools' new Professional Compensation System for Teachers and New Mexico's new licensure system.
Under the Denver system, teachers earn a base salary and can boost their pay by achieving student-performance goals, teaching in hard-to-staff schools, teaching a subject in which there is a shortage, earning positive performance evaluations, holding an advanced degree and completing professional development. The system was approved in 2004 and will be phased in over several years.
"It's not a strict merit pay program, but it looks at teachers' skills, evaluations, student outcomes and market incentives," Timothy said.
New Mexico ties teacher pay to its new tiered system, which awards advanced licenses to teachers who meet many of the same criteria in the Denver program. The more advanced the license, the more teachers earn.
Denver's teacher-compensation system evolved with the help of teacher input, Chatterton said. Indeed, the teacher union helped design the program and later approved it with a 59 percent vote.
Utah School Board Chairman Kim Burningham said he was especially interested in providing incentives for teachers - the best teachers - to take assignments in at-risk schools with large populations of low-income students.
"We've got to do something to make them feel better about staying there," Burningham said. "We need to get our better teachers there."
The task force will tackle several other hot-button issues including performance evaluations, dismissal criteria, even an e-mail-based system for parents to evaluate teachers.