Utah is facing a teacher shortage, particularly in the STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and math. A new state auditor’s report provides one clear explanation for the problem. A college graduate with an education degree can only expect an average starting salary of $36,577. By way of comparison, a student with an interest in STEM fields can pursue a degree in computer science and land a job with a starting salary of $64,071. It’s no surprise, then, that teaching programs at Utah universities are seeing a profound decline in enrollment. State auditor John Dougall rightly noted that “this is clearly a significant factor” in the lack of qualified teachers, and that if “somebody’s looking at what their compensation is and they’re looking at that opportunity cost, that’s a significant difference.”
The state auditor’s findings reinforce a basic economic lesson: it is not possible to repeal the law of supply and demand. If public schools aren’t willing to pay the fair market value for STEM talent, they ought not be surprised when they find themselves in short supply. Clearly there are some teachers who are willing to forego the higher pay they could get from another job, but the hard reality is that this disparity is too glaring to overlook. There is likely no satisfactory shortcut to confronting this shortage than finding a way to increase STEM teacher compensation.
The state has tried to address the issue with a teacher salary enhancement program, which provides an annual supplement of $4,100. However, according to the state auditor’s report, this supplement is too limited and lacks visibility. It would therefore be wise for the Utah Legislature to expand the reach of this program to help attract new teachers. There is also a solution that wouldn’t require any legislative action at all. Currently, school districts pay higher salaries based on experience and education, but they do not take into account a teacher’s subject matter. Dougall suggests that “public education may be creating an artificial shortage just based on the way they compensate teachers,” noting that higher education is willing to pay more for professors in STEM subjects, which is why we don’t see “any kind of shortage when it comes to hiring math professors versus professors in other disciplines.”
Teacher certification is also something that ought to be reviewed, too. Qualified STEM professionals who want to return to the classroom after a successful career in the private sector are stymied by the requirement that they go back to school and get an education degree if they want to teach. Alternative routes to certification that recognize the value of real-world experience would go a long way toward increasing the talent pool.
Regardless, this is a challenge that is not going away anytime soon. With record numbers of students coming into the system, Utah’s public education establishment needs to do everything possible to ensure that there are qualified STEM instructors to teach them.