Utahns rank education as a priority. Did that align with what lawmakers did this year?

The Utah State Capitol is shown during the final day of the Utah Legislature Friday, March 3, 2023, in Salt Lake City.
Rick Bowmer

Utahns think providing better support to teachers and addressing the teacher shortage are the most important strategies for ensuring students get a great education, according to the nonprofit Envision Utah.

The organization surveyed 505 adults last December before the start of the 2023 Utah Legislative Session. Respondents rated public education as the most important issue right now, ahead of water resources and inflation.

Within public education, respondents rated school safety, student mental health and teacher pay as the most important education policy priorities. Most said there would be positive outcomes to improving compensation like more people would become teachers and turnover would decrease, which would benefit students.

More controversial issues about what is taught in school, like transparency in curriculum and the appropriateness of books in libraries were further down on the list.

Jason Brown, vice president of education and communications, said Envision Utah wanted to do this survey partly because of the transparency and sensitive materials bills run during the 2022 legislative session, as well as a national focus on controversial topics in schools.

“We wanted to see if Utahns felt like those were the big things that needed to be focused on. And the answer that we got from the polling seems to be ‘no.’” Brown said.

The survey showed that how racism and gender are taught in school remain polarizing issues in Utah, but they are not the most important education issue. Brown wasn’t surprised, but he was a little relieved to see Utahns were so supportive of teachers.

During the recent legislative session, Brown felt lawmakers did not spend as much time on issues surrounding curriculum and transparency as they did in 2022. He said one of the bills headlining the session had a teacher pay raise component, in addition to creating a new school voucher program.

“As outsiders felt pretty good about that because it seems like that was in line with how Utahns are thinking about and prioritizing these issues,” Brown said.

Envision Utah’s survey did not ask respondents how they felt about vouchers, school choice or scholarship programs, a question that Brown wished they had some data on.

Republican Rep. Dan Johnson, a retired educator and vice chair of the House Education Committee, called this session “historic” because of the funding allocated to public education and the engagement of parents. He said in addition to school choice and funding, lawmakers were also focused on supporting teachers and will continue to focus on them.

“I think that sends a strong message that the Legislature really supported teachers.”

Johnson acknowledged that some teachers did not feel that support, especially because of the number of curriculum and sensitive materials bills that were run.

“Even though we give them $64 million for additional days to do their work, the biggest pay increase in the history of the state, it still doesn't feel good. Why is that? It's because they keep feeling like the Legislature sometimes is the gorilla in the room, hitting them over the head with a sledgehammer. And I think the teachers, a lot of them kind of felt like that. And I don't blame them.”

During the interim session, Johnson said he will be working with House Education Committee Chair Rep. Candice Pierucci to monitor the number of bills dealing with curriculum and encourage lawmakers that are running these bills to combine them so there are not as many to deal with.

Democratic Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, also a retired educator, does not feel like supporting teachers was a priority this session and called it lip service, especially because the school voucher bill was combined with the pay raise.

“We love you, but we're going to appropriate $42 million to encourage parents to take their kids out of public school and put them in either homeschool or any kind of private school.”

To Spackman Moss, supporting teachers would look like lawmakers giving them a bigger pay raise and showing that they respect the professionalism of teachers.

The average starting teacher salary in Utah is $44,349, according to data that the National Education Association released in 2022. Lawmakers gave teachers a $6,000 raise, which is a $4,200 salary increase and a $1,800 increase in benefits.

Brown said Envision Utah would like to see starting pay be between $60,000 and $70,000. He would like those salaries to keep growing throughout a teacher's career so that they’re making more than $110,00 by the time they retire.

“If we really want to make sure that we have the best teachers possible, and if we really want to make sure we get over the teacher shortage, then we definitely need to have much more competitive salaries.”

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Martha is KUER’s education reporter.