VERNAL Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert spent very little time Tuesday during his keynote speech here to the 20th annual Uinta Basin Water Conference talking about water issues. Instead he chose to discuss plans to address Utah's need for teachers.
Herbert said Utah is ranked first in the nation for rate of job growth, averaging 4.5 percent per year in the past three years, with a 4.6 percent growth rate in 2007. Yet the consequence of record low unemployment as little as 3.2 percent at one point last year, and currently 3.7 percent is that employers, including the state's school districts, are having a hard time finding qualified teachers.
"We have had about a 400-teacher shortage this past year, so we're probably not doing something right," Herbert told the Deseret Morning News following his speech. "The low unemployment rate exacerbates the problem."
Several innovations will be needed in order to create "the best possible education opportunity for our children," Herbert said in his speech. The innovations include the obvious raising teacher salaries plus a plan to pay math and science teachers more than teachers in more easily recruited subjects such as English and history.
"We need to consider paying more for teachers with special talents," Herbert said, adding that he is also weary of "bickering" between supporters of private and public education. He said any changes to education in Utah "ought to be talked about in an atmosphere of mutual respect, with neither side saying we have all the answers.
"We have good public school experiences, good charter school and good private-school experiences," Herbert said. "They are all good experiences, and they can all work together so our children can compete in the global market."
But that doesn't mean Herbert or Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. are ready to support another private school voucher bill, the lieutenant governor clarified.
"The public has spoken its mind on vouchers, and it would probably be unwise to revisit the voucher issue at this time," Herbert told the Deseret Morning News. "I think there are other innovations that ought to be looked at, such as providing public schools with more local control."
Specifically, Herbert wants to see more policies set by local school boards rather than the state school board, and superintendents and principals given more power to hire and fire, all under the direction of local board members.
"I've had principals come into my office and say 'I've had to fire someone, and it took two years to get it done. The process was so ugly, I'll never do it again; I'll put up with a bad teacher instead,"' Herbert told conference attendees. "So right now the system is a little unwieldy, and that should change."
But to make it possible to hire and retain good teachers, Herbert said salaries must go up. He said the Huntsman administration has approved K-12 funding increases totaling 48 percent since coming into office in 2005, and reminded the audience that Huntsman approved a $510 million boost to the public education budget in 2006 alone.
"That kind of got ignored during the voucher debate," Herbert said. "But I expect education is going to see a large number again this year."
In addition to larger starting wages, Herbert said the "pay ladder" needs to be changed so teachers can enter higher earning brackets while remaining teachers, rather than being forced to become administrators to climb above the salary plateau.
Herbert also said schools should consider options such as extended school days and methods of using school buildings all year rather than having facilities that go "offline" for three months in the summer."We may not be using our assets the best that we can," he said.