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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Northwest Middle School teacher Becky Stewart hugs former students as West High School seniors donned their caps and gowns to walk through their former school in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 30, 2017. West High's commencement is Thursday at the University of Utah's Huntsman Center.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah schools are digging deep to boost teacher compensation, with many Wasatch Front districts raising starting salaries to $40,000 and higher.

But is it enough to attract and retain "the best and the brightest?"

Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, calls improved compensation for educators "a really exciting trend. We are so pleased to see things going in this direction. It's long overdue, but we want to make sure this is just the first step."

While starting pay for teachers in most Wasatch Front school districts will be around $40,000 a year beginning in the fall — with a handful exceeding that figure — Matthews cautioned against apples-to-apples comparisons of negotiated agreements between local boards of education and teacher associations.

"The way that compensation is being calculated varies widely by districts. Some are investing in their rising insurance costs. Some are really focusing on the early educators to just get people in the door. There's kind of that race for the entry-level salary. Others are recognizing that the real secret is in retention of existing teachers, and they're putting salary increases across the board that are indexed instead of weighted in one place," she said.

A combination of factors have made significant pay raises possible: the 4 percent increase to the value of the weighted pupil unit approved by state lawmakers earlier this year; decisions by some boards of education to raise local property tax rates; and in Salt Lake County, equalization funding.

Matthews said many Utahns recognize that public education had reached a "crisis state," both in attracting new teachers, retaining veteran teachers and filling positions of teachers who are retiring, although some teachers who were planning to retire have decided to stay due to increases in pay.

Among school boards that voted to raise property tax rates to help raise teacher pay, there has been little opposition from constituents because they understand what is at stake, Matthews said.

"They know that you attract the best and the brightest and keep them there when they're compensated in a way that they can raise their families. We have teachers who are now saying maybe for the first time they're not going to need to have a second job. That's really good for kids," she said.

Mark Knold, senior economist for the Department of Workforce Services, said recent increases in starting pay for public schoolteachers put those salaries on par with starting pay for many other professions in Utah that also require bachelor's degrees.

But the state's unemployment rate is low, 3.1 percent, and job growth is robust, which presents challenges for all employers.

"From an individual worker standpoint, there's more choices for them to sell their labor so that's the environment this desire for teachers is up against. It's a very active labor market. From the point of view of using a housing market buyer/seller analogy, if you're selling your labor, it's a seller's market," Knold said.

So in the current economy, it is prudent to boost compensation to compete for new college graduates and those who have teaching credentials, but there are no guarantees they will seek employment as educators, he said.

"The ultimate question is, is this enough and will it do will what they want? The market is the only thing that will give that ultimate answer," he said.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show starting pay for microbiologists, land surveyors or actuaries is similar to that for starting teachers and also require at least a bachelor's degree. However, lifetime earnings for those professions outstrip career teacher pay, so that will be a factor new graduates need to consider, too, he said.

As for teacher pay, new salary schedules adopted by local school districts will render Utah competitive in the region, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but well behind salaries in northeastern states such as New Jersey, where starting pay is $53,000 and higher, and Alaska, where elementary schoolteachers are paid $52,580 annually and $54,200 for secondary teachers.

While pay increases will help, numbers of college students entering teacher preparation programs are "drastically lower than they've been in the past," said Mary Burbank, assistant dean of the University of Utah's College of Education.

Demands of the profession, public perception of the work and the preparation all play a role, she said.

The university was recently recognized by the National Council on Teacher Quality for the strength of its secondary teacher preparation program.

The recognition may encourage more enrollment in teacher preparation programs, but the college is taking other approaches to build the teaching corps, such as running coursework through other academic sequences, she said.

"The work of recruiting is never done. The good news is, this certainly helps us," Burbank said

Matthews said there needs to be a sustained effort to keep teachers' wages competitive and to ensure there are sufficient resources for initiatives and programs that support teachers early in their careers and help retain veteran teachers.

A recent report by the Utah Education Policy Center at the U. found 56 percent of the public school educators who started teaching in 2008 left the profession by 2015.

Among teachers ages 25 and younger, 73 percent left the profession over the eight years.

It's a troubling trend, but Matthews said recent events are cause for optimism.

"I think the time is just ripe for a statewide initiative like Our Schools Now because people are saying they value education, they value it deeply and they're willing to pay for it. We can't have a state where some students and some school districts can't compete simply because of where they live. They can't compete for those top educators in these salary wars," she said.

The Our Schools Now campaign envisions a citizen initiative that would ask voters whether to raise taxes to increase investment in public schools.

A statewide approach is needed because some school districts are unable, through a variety of factors, to increase local taxes to help them compete for new hires, let alone keep veteran teachers in classrooms, she said.

"They simply just don't have the capacity to do what they want to raise the revenue to be competitive in this environment, areas where they have maxed out their resources, their board leeway that can be increased up to a cap and they still don't have the property values that would raise the revenue needed to be able to compete," she said.