Utah legislators are targeting the state's critical shortage of teachers — and the related topic of improving teacher pay — with new proposals aimed at attracting and retaining educators.

The Legislature's Subcommittee on Teacher Shortages, Quality and Compensation, formed after lawmakers received a report from the K-16 Alliance "firing a flare" of emergency that Utah is experiencing a severe teacher shortage, is drafting several measures to deal with the problem. Among the proposals:

• Streamlining re-licensure for teachers.

• Creating scholarships to draw people into teacher programs at the state's colleges and universities.

• Encouraging school districts to go on a year-round track to boost teachers' income.

• Funneling state funds directly to teachers in areas of critical need, such as the sciences.

• And reconsidering the controversial topic of "merit pay."

While a program already exists appropriating money to cover tuition for Utah teaching students in their last two years of college, a new proposal would allocate $1 million to award para-educators, such as teacher's aides and class assistants, scholarships to earn their associate's degree.

Many para-educators only have a high school education but already have an interest in teaching and working with children.

Rep. Ronda Rudd Menlove, R-Garland, said there are no "pay-back" provisions, but the scholarship recipients would be required to continue working in the schools while they are getting a degree.

Another measure would appropriate $32 million to give incentives to school districts to go on a year-round track in order to offer teachers a full year's pay, boosting salaries by an estimated 40 percent to 60 percent.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, chairman of the committee, said he also wants to set aside $7 million to implement differentiated pay for teachers and provide an additional $5,000 for teachers in areas where there are critical shortages, like math, science and special education.

"We need highly qualified people in classrooms who will really teach and inspire these kids to seek careers in those fields — it takes someone with real passion to inspire them to go into math and science fields," Stephenson said.

Stephenson also wants to see a task force of educators and state and local leaders created to explore merit pay, an issue that hasn't been welcome by the Utah Education Association in the past.

And some lawmakers cautioned leaders to tread carefully on the subject.

"This is something that has been around for a long time and has been a divisive issue among educators — it needs to be handled very carefully, and a lot of people need to be involved in the decision.... We need to do it right or don't do it at all," said Rep. Lou Shurtliff, D-Ogden.

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