Last fall, Envision Utah released a set of recommended changes to our school system aimed at ending the teacher shortage and improving student outcomes statewide. The report – “A Vision for Teacher Excellence” – received substantial media coverage, was recommended for inclusion in the governor’s 2020 budget by the Education Excellence Commission and factored into tax reform discussions on Capitol Hill. Its most notable suggestion was that all Utah teacher salaries be raised to an average starting pay of $60,000 and grow to $110,000 by retirement.
Of course, better compensation isn’t the only thing our teachers need. For special education teachers struggling to support large classes or students with serious challenges, another classroom aide might be more pressing. Some veteran teachers might prefer the help of another school psychologist or smaller class sizes over a salary increase. New teachers often need extra support or a reduced teaching load as they transition into the profession. The “Vision for Teacher Excellence” accounted for and made recommendations about all these needs.
But, as a state, we should take care not to let these kinds of changes distract us from addressing teacher compensation. While aides, counselors, mentors, better technology and stronger curricula can help teachers and improve learning, nothing will transform our schools like a statewide increase in teacher pay.
It’s important to acknowledge, first, the impact that better compensation would have on current teachers. Even veteran teachers in 17 of Utah’s 41 school districts make less than a living wage for a family in their county, and teachers are more likely than people in other professions to work a second job. Our vision to increase every Utah teacher’s pay would reduce (if not eliminate) the need for teachers to find work outside of school, minimize their financial stress and alleviate the emotional burnout that leads to much of our unusually high turnover.
That said, teacher compensation isn’t just about current classroom teachers — it’s about former teachers, prospective teachers, parents and, most importantly, students. Our vision is foremost about helping Utah kids develop the knowledge and skills they need to lead happy, successful and fulfilling lives. Any of the education, civic and business leaders we worked with will tell you that. But since teachers are the most fundamental piece of a child’s education (outside of families and the students themselves), a vision for improving education must focus on teachers.
Our research suggests that raising teacher salaries could bring thousands of experienced educators back to the classroom and attract waves of college students into our academic teacher preparation programs, ending the teacher shortage and making teaching one of the most competitive jobs in Utah. From there, schools and districts could take their pick of the state’s best and brightest people to teach our children, which studies show would improve student outcomes.
A significant pay raise for every teacher in our state would also send a message to students and their families that school should be their top priority. In a society where pay is tightly linked to respect (though we may not like to admit it), higher teacher salaries would result in a cultural shift that would strengthen collaboration between families and teachers and improve students’ engagement in their own education.
Utah has somewhere around 30,000 teachers, so improving teacher compensation is not a small feat. By our calculations, these recommendations would cost roughly $600 million each year to implement. We recognize that’s a heavy lift, but we also believe Utahns are up to the challenge.
Envision Utah took on this project in the first place because education is one of Utahns’ top priorities. Utahns know, as research confirms, that supporting our teachers is essential to improving our schools. In fact, our most recent polling shows 71 percent of Utah residents are willing to pay for increased school funding, and 90 percent want to provide better support for teachers.
We call our report a vision because it’s meant to be imaginative and bold. Teacher aides and counselors are critical, and technology can play an important role; but if we can be brave enough and wise enough to make teaching a more attractive, competitive and rewarding career, we will change everything.
We hope schools and families across Utah will join us in envisioning the kind of compensation and support teachers need to give our kids a world-class education.
Nain Christopherson is the education coordinator at Envision Utah and an English Teaching major at the University of Utah.
Jason Brown is a vice president at Envision Utah and oversees the organization’s education efforts.