Here’s how Utah lawmakers are trying to retain teachers

Teacher retention rates in Utah remain relatively high, but for early career teachers, rates are lower.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nichole Moore, a third grade teacher at Aspen Elementary School in South Jordan, helps Nicolas Perez, 8, with his schoolwork on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. Utah lawmakers have proposed a handful of bills aimed at keeping teachers in the state.

Utah ranks relatively high right now when it comes to retaining teachers, according to a December report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. But there are warning signs, especially among early career educators, that the state may not be able to keep that up.

That’s why Utah lawmakers have proposed a handful of bills aimed at keeping teachers in the state.

There is HB221, or “Stipends for Future Educators,” that would create an $8.4 million fund for eligible student teachers to apply and potentially receive a grant. And there is HB287, which would create a scholarship program for teachers who wish to pursue a master’s or doctoral degree.

Here is a breakdown of what lawmakers are asking for, when it comes to financial and professional support.

What are Utah’s teacher retention concerns?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Erin Hemingway, a science teacher at Butler Middle School, leads a class in the school motto, using sign language, on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023.

For starting teachers salaries, Utah ranked second-highest nationally in the 2021-2022 school year at $46,800, according to the Gardner Institute report.

But across the board, average K-12 teacher salaries placed in the middle of the pack, the report notes. That same year, Utah had only 0.5 teacher vacancies per 10,000 students.

Regarding teacher retention, overall rates hovered around 90% between the 2018-2019 and 2022-2023 school years. That means 90% of Utah teachers returned to teach the following school year.

The concern however centers around retention rates for early career teachers, which are lower, said Laura Summers, Director of Industry Research at the Gardner Institute. Of the first-year teachers studied starting in 2018, only 61% were still teaching five years later, the report states.

Some of the top reasons teachers left included unrealistic workload expectations, lack of recognition and respect, and lack of training, support and other resources, according to exit interviews, the Gardner Institute found.

“I think narrowing in on some of those points as to why people are citing this or leaving the profession, especially if they are an early educator, could definitely help create some solutions to address those issues,” Summers said.

What are lawmakers proposing?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, speaks during a news conference addressing legislation aimed at teacher retention, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024.

Lawmakers are hoping to target some of those issues in their latest proposals. A group gathered at the Capitol last week to highlight a handful of these plans.

One featured bill was HB431, which would create a $4.8 million “Mentoring and Supporting Teacher Excellence and Refinement Pilot Program.” The program, according to bill language, would identify a “master teacher” — a teacher approved by the school’s administration — that would not only mentor other teachers, but could get a raise in pay.

The measure, sponsored by House Education Committee chair Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, would also create a hotline where teachers can report their school or local education agency — a district for example — for any practices that impair an educator from doing their job.

“What I found in the past year as I’ve gone around chatting with teachers, is there’s red tape in the way that they just need help navigating and not always [are those] resources available at the district level,” Pierucci said.

Lawmakers also pointed to South Jordan Republican Sen. Lincoln Fillmore’s “teacher empowerment” bill, SB137, which would give districts the power to create policies that conflict with federal disciplinary guidance, so long as that guidance is not required by law. And that could give teachers the power to remove unruly students from their classroom more easily, though opponents have argued it stands to harm students with disabilities.

Another bill from Fillmore, SB173, aims to give “top-performing” teachers in the state bonuses: $10,000 for the top 5% of teachers; $5,000 for the next 6%-10%; and $2,000 for the next 11%-25%. If a teacher works at what the state considers a “high poverty school,” that bonus would be matched.

Discerning who “top-performing” teachers are would come through reviews that weigh factors including student achievement measures, professional evaluations and student and parent surveys, the bill states.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, speaks during a news conference addressing legislation aimed at teacher retention, at the Utah Captiol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024.

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

Included in that bill is also a “salary supplement for highly needed educators,” which would give local education agencies, such as school districts, funds to give educators more money if their teaching assignment is one the agency finds difficult to fill or retain. But the bill notes that money will first be distributed to charter schools, and the remainder of unused funds will go toward traditional schools.

Another proposal that wasn’t discussed Wednesday is HB287, from Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay — a bill Renée Pinkney, president of the Utah Educators Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said educators “would really appreciate.”

Dubbed the “advanced degree scholarship program,” the bill aims to give teachers an opportunity pursue master’s and doctoral degrees, especially as many may not have the money to do so while raising a family, Pinkney said.

”Once educators are getting some support and getting that advanced degree, then they are likely to continue teaching,” she said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, during a news conference addressing legislation aimed at teacher retention, at the Utah Captiol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024.

‘They just can’t afford it’

On top of retention, lawmakers are also trying to recruit new teachers.

Pinkney pointed to the “Stipends for Future Educators” bill, HB221, which aims to both offset tuition costs for student teachers and increase opportunities for disadvantaged college students seeking education degrees, for example.

“We have college students that go through all the initial steps in order to get a teaching license, and then when it comes to the student teaching experience, they realize they have to quit their jobs and they just can’t afford it,” she said.

Fewer student teachers also leads to larger student-teacher ratios, because there are fewer teachers in the classroom. Though Utah has a relatively low teacher vacancy rate, the state had one of the highest student-teacher ratios in the country in the fall of 2021, the Gardner Institute found.

“We just really know that we need highly qualified educators in every classroom on day one,” Pinkney said, “in a well-resourced classroom that is welcoming and fosters a strong sense of belonging for every student and every family.”