In Utah, more teachers leave their job each year than the number of new instructors who enter the classroom.

That created a shortage of more than 1,600 educators in 2016, according to a new survey from Envision Utah, a regional planning agency. Meanwhile, the number of students filling the seats before them increased by 10,000 statewide. It’s an imbalance that’s getting worse.

“We need a lot more teachers than we currently have,” said Jason Brown, spokesman for the organization. “We just have such a high turnover rate.”

In a first-of-its-kind study from Envision Utah, which typically focuses on neighborhood and transportation issues in the state, the numbers reveal the deepening teacher deficit — something that’s been studied and talked about for years, including an impassioned call by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert last year to do something about it. But they also provide new insights into why college students who were interested in teaching chose different career paths and how teacher salaries compare to compensation for other professions in the state.

Because, in the end, the poll found that one of the biggest reasons teachers cite for leaving is the same issue that those who decided to pick a different job say led them away: The pay is too low.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Envision Utah intends to use that finding, Brown said, to further examine how much teachers should be paid and how that might be funded. The first step is creating a committee of 20 education stakeholders in the state — including members of the governor’s staff and the president of the Utah Education Association — to debate a salary range they would find reasonable and then pitch ways to fund that to the Legislature.

“We know there are many factors that influence people’s decisions to become teachers, and remain in the classroom — but teacher salaries are an integral piece of the puzzle, and we are invested in ensuring they are both fair and competitive," said Tami Pyfer, the governor’s education advisor who will sit on the panel.

Currently, the average annual median salary for a public school teacher in Utah is about $54,000, according to Envision Utah. That’s nearly $6,000 below what is considered a living wage here. And it’s $20,000 to $32,000 below what those in comparable careers in the state, such as accountants and urban planners, are making.

(A similar study from Utah Foundation released Wednesday found that median salary was even lower at $47,600 — about $15,000 below the national average.)

The hope is that if teacher salaries increase, more educators will stay in the classroom and more will join them.

“This issue of what we should pay teachers is the big unknown. It’s like pin the tail on the donkey. But no one ever pins it anywhere,” said Envision Utah’s CEO Robert Grow. “This may be a very challenging undertaking.”

Most people in the state support paying teachers more. According to Envision’s survey, 90 percent of Utah residents believe it’s important to increase educator salaries. But it’s unclear by how much and if taxpayers would actually agree to fund it.

An effort to infuse more dollars into education by increasing the gas tax failed on the ballot last year. And Utah has long ranked last in the nation for per-pupil spending.

The governor’s office sent out its own questionnaire last year, asking teachers who’d left the field what might bring them back. Of the 2,000 who filled it out, the majority said more money.

“We need to find a way to pay them more,” Herbert has said. “We need to recruit and retain the best and the brightest.”

Envision Utah’s 2018 survey of 4,000 college students in the state found that 44 percent considered a career in teaching. But of those, 36 percent said the salaries were too low.

Had those students pursued a job in education, though, there would be nearly 3,000 graduating each year with a teaching degree rather than 1,780, according to the study. That would nearly cancel out the 3,400 teachers who left the classroom in 2016.

Increasing salaries could impact those numbers, as well as get more teachers to stay, Grow said. The committee will present its suggested pay increase and potentially some ways to finance it to lawmakers at the end of June. At that same time, lawmakers will also be debating a possible tax restructure that could change how public education is funded.

“It’s very timely,” said Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, the largest teacher union in the state.

Matthews will sit on the Envision Utah committee and make recommendations. She added that salary is not the only problem for teachers, who also face large class sizes and high expectations for end-of-year test scores. But this is “the most effective and immediate way to get more people into the classroom.”

She’s reviewed statistics on poor teacher retention in Utah since 2006. This effort, Matthews said, finally feels like a step forward to addressing it.