Tribune Editorial: Better paid teachers will drive rural Utah’s prosperity

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune A school bus from Monument Valley High School passes Jaydon Yazzie, VanteJren Atene and McKalette Clark, as they ride home from school on their horses onThursday, January 30, 2014.

These are heady times for brand new teachers in Utah. Twenty-two-year-olds fresh from college are getting offers with starting salaries around $50,000 a year.

If they’re between Ogden and Provo.

If they’re in Piute or Wayne counties, they would be lucky to get $1,000 a month less than that. In fact, some rural Utah school districts have average salaries below what the big districts are now paying the rookies.

According to the Utah Foundation, rural teachers make up to 40 percent less than comparable teachers in urban districts.

And while it’s risky to draw bright lines connecting school funding with success, it’s probably safe to say that those lower salaries contribute to lower test scores among rural students.

As Utah focuses on trying to bring the rural economy up to something approaching the high-flying Wasatch Front, it’s worth remembering that quality education is always key to any longterm economic development strategy. That is particularly true as rural Utah tries to move from low-tech mining and agriculture to more information-driven jobs.

Rural education already costs more. There are fewer economies of scale in a high school with 100 students than in one with 1,000. They also have outsized busing costs. Piute School District paid $1,691 per student for transportation in 2017-18. In Granite District, it was $146. That’s a big difference in a state that only spends around $7,000 per student.

As a result, rural school districts tend to rely more on state revenue — from income taxes — and less on local property taxes. In Tintic District in 2017-18, state funding was 77% of total school expenditures. In Salt Lake District, it was 30%. That shouldn’t be forgotten as state legislators consider a change in the state constitution to divert income tax dollars away from education.

Those big entry-level salaries are driven by the fact that there is a growing national teacher shortage. Baby boomers are retiring, and their children have been less interested in teaching, in part because pay hasn’t kept pace with other careers demanding a college education.

Nowhere is that shortage more pronounced than in rural America. Schools in Montana have even turned to recruiting teachers from the Philippines.

Teaching in small town Utah can be extremely rewarding. Fresh air and wide open spaces abound in the heart of scenic America, and the kids are eager to expand their limited horizons. Growth in broadband internet makes it easier to connect them to the larger world.

But we need to understand that teaching is now a seller’s market. If we want quality educators in every corner of the state, we will have to meet their price.