Utah teacher pay: How salaries compare to educators in other states

Utah ranks No. 23 for average teacher salaries, according to the National Education Association

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Elizabeth Grant, superintendent of Salt Lake School District, right, and 6th grade dual language immersion teacher Amaia Lema, welcome the new students on the first day of school at Mary W. Jackson Elementary, August 22, 2023.

Utah teachers receive roughly 72 cents for every dollar earned by comparably educated professionals working in different careers, according to a recent study by the National Education Association.

It’s called the “teacher pay penalty,” or the phenomenon where teachers earn significantly less than similarly educated individuals in other professions.

“The compensation packages for those other professions have largely kept pace with [inflation,]” said Renée Pinkney, president of the Utah Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “Those professionals are earning salaries that are competitive.”

But teachers aren’t earning competitive salaries, or, in many cases, livable ones, according to the National Education Association study. The annual report ranks average teacher salary, average teacher starting salary and student spending by state.

This year, the NEA tracked “record-level” salary hikes in some states, but the increases haven’t come close to keeping up with inflation. Teachers nationally are now making 5% less than they did 10 years ago, the NEA reported.

“I started teaching in 1996,” Pinkney said. “I now am making less money as far as real dollars and being able to purchase commodities.”

The report states chronic low pay is “plaguing the profession.”

“A staggering 77% of U.S. school districts still pay a starting salary below $50,000″ — including Utah, it notes.

Utah ranks No. 10 in nation for starting teacher salary

First-time teachers in Utah earn an average of $49,555 annually — just enough for a single person without kids to afford a studio apartment in Salt Lake County and maintain an “adequate” standard of living, according to estimates by the Economic Policy Institute.

It’s also enough to earn Utah the No. 10 spot in the National Education Association’s rankings for average educator starting salaries. Nationally, the average starting salary for teachers sits at $44,530, the NEA reported.

This year marked some of the highest beginning salaries the NEA has tracked in over a decade — but when adjusted for inflation, first-time teachers are making $4,273 less than they did in 2008-2009.

“Specifically in Utah, in 2008, when we saw the recession begin, the recovery was really, really slow,” Pinkney said.

She’s referring to the Great Recession, which began in December 2007 and sparked widespread financial instability and historic job losses, becoming the longest and deepest since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

“We have seen pay increases, however, those increases haven’t dug out of the hole that we were already in,” Pinkney said.

The District of Colombia claimed the No. 1 spot for average starting teacher salaries at $63,373, followed by New Jersey at $56,434. Montana came in last place with an average starting salary of $34,476.

Utah saw a 5.7% increase in average teacher starting wages from last year to this year, or an increase of $2,675. The state claimed the No. 13 spot in 2023.

Utah ranks no. 23 for average teacher salary

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Second grade teachers Cami Beacham, left, and Amy Bartlett talk during the first week of classes at Desert Sky Elementary, Eagle Mountain’s new elementary school on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023.

While a single, first-year teacher with no children might manage to make ends meet living in a studio apartment or with a roommate, the situation significantly shifts when children enter the equation.

Using Salt Lake County again as an example, a single teacher with one child would need to earn at least $75,139 to maintain an “adequate” standard of living, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

That’s a whopping $11,658 more than the average teacher in Utah makes, which is $63,481, according to the NEA.

In terms of average teacher salary — not just starting pay — Utah ranks around the middle at No. 23 compared to other states. Utah teachers earn about $6,000 less than the national average of $69,544.

It’s not enough, said Pinkney.

“We know that a lot of educators leave the profession because they’re just not making enough; they’re not making ends meet,” Pinkney said. “And they get second jobs in order to make ends meet.”

California claimed the No. 1 spot for average teacher salary at $95,160. New York came in second at $92,696. West Virginia took last place with an average teacher salary of $52,870.

How is Utah retaining teachers?

“Every social ill walks into our classroom,” said Pinkney, “so, if we don’t have a fully funded education system, the individuals who are really hurt are our students.”

A “fully funded” system includes competitive compensation packages that attract and retain top talent, Pinkney said.

While Utah ranks relatively high right now when it comes to retaining teachers, according to a December report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, data indicates the state may struggle in the future to keep early career teachers.

That’s why legislators this year ran a number of bills aimed at retaining them.

HB221, or “Stipends for Future Educators,” created an $8.4 million fund for eligible student teachers to apply and potentially receive a grant. HB431, created a $4.8 million “Mentoring and Supporting Teacher Excellence and Refinement” pilot program. The program is meant to identify a “master teacher” — approved by the school’s administration — who would not only mentor other teachers, but could get a raise in pay.

Lawmakers also passed SB173, “Market Informed Compensation for Teachers.” The law gives “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 law states.

But while the law does offer more compensation opportunities for teachers, Pinkney said the Utah Education Association opposes it.

Pinkney explained that teaching is collaborative, and the way the law structures bonuses could affect that collaborative environment, potentially leading to a situation where certain teaching disciplines are perceived as more important than others.

“We don’t produce widgets,” Pinkney said. “It’s not about production and efficiencies. A market-based bonus system will give some educators the opportunity to earn more money. Some. But at what cost?”