Shadley: There’s No Substitute for Public Education


Emily Christensen

(Graphic by Emily Christensen | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Will Shadley, Opinion Writer


More teachers calling in sick due to the Omicron variant has depleted an already understaffed education system. On Jan. 31, Gov. Spencer Cox issued an executive order allowing state employees to take approved leave from their jobs to fill in as substitute teachers in Utah’s schools. The Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce has followed suit and urged local businesses to allow workers to do the same. Rather than address the fundamental issue, a lack of teachers, Utah has devoted these resources to a band-aid solution. Without adequate pay for teachers and teaching assistants, Utah’s public education system will further deteriorate, leaving behind a shoddy private education system that damages its students.

Substitute Teachers or Substitute Babysitters?

Gov. Cox recently spent a day substitute teaching a history class of 7th and 8th graders, teaching them about American and Utah history. In the short video he tweeted out, he expresses his gratitude for our hard-working educators, especially the one he subbed for, who prepared most of the lesson for him. While that teacher, Ms. Pederson, likely appreciates that gratitude, that doesn’t make up for the extra work she had to do while her students still fell behind.

There’s more to teaching than simply facilitating a lesson plan. Sending a random state employee to a classroom delegitimizes the important work that teachers do. They’ve spent their entire lives perfecting the craft of understanding different learning styles, reading body language, explaining concepts clearly, encouraging collaboration, sparking interest and much more.

Teaching cannot be learned in a day. Treating teachers as easily replaceable and expendable seems like a poor way to express gratitude for them. Instead, Gov. Cox and the legislature could use this opportunity to raise teachers’ salaries and create a robust network of teaching assistants and substitute teachers that could adequately fill in for them. Unfortunately, they’ve chosen to move in the opposite direction.

A Tough Time to Teach

The average starting salary for teachers in Utah is $43,000. That number falls above the living wage for a single, childless person in counties ranging from Tooele to Salt Lake, but it falls well short of the living wage for a parent. Our teachers aren’t living in destitute poverty, but the difficulty and importance of the job far exceed its pay. And it’s only getting worse.

At the start of the 2021-22 school year, elementary-aged students had already fallen several months behind because of the pandemic. As teachers continue to miss time during the pandemic, that number will only go up. And those students will continue to start off behind in each subsequent grade, making every teacher’s job more difficult.

But the challenges don’t stop with the students. Parents and the legislature have become increasingly involved in complicating teachers’ lives. Now, teachers have to delicately balance the Utah School Board’s absurd requirements around teaching Critical Race Theory, LGBTQ+ literature has been banned from many of Utah’s school libraries and in a bill currently in the legislature, parents would have the option to withdraw their children from learning about anything they find objectionable. This incredibly divisive climate leaves teachers underpaid, under-appreciated and subjected to angry, irrational parents. With these challenges, it’s no wonder we have a teaching shortage.

What Will Remain of Our Education System?

Gov. Cox and his party have repeatedly undermined our public education system, despite him offering lip service to Utah’s teachers. Our teachers endure so much because they believe in the importance of education. But that endurance can only last so long. As new generations of teachers opt for more desirable pursuits, or at least ones that don’t severely strain their mental health and bank accounts, Utah’s public education system will fall further into disarray.

Speakers at the 2020 Republican National Convention repeatedly hammered the value of “school choice” as an alternative to our public schools. Gov. Cox ran on “reducing regulations” in our education system.

Conservative politicians largely favor the privatization of our schools. When the legislature continues to strip Utah’s public schools of resources, the only chance at a “good” education will come from private schools. For those who can’t afford to send their children to a private school, their kids will spend their time in dilapidated classrooms with far too many students and far too few teachers. For those who can, they’ll have to wade through a barrage of schools that boast a “Patriotic,” “American First” or “God First” education.

Gov. Cox’s executive order stands as another example of the Republican party neglecting the foundation of a quality public education — teachers. If we only offer gratitude and a random state employee to help teachers in this difficult time, our education system will devolve into a privatized mess. Utah’s students and educators deserve better. Let’s start devoting resources to improving public education, not governor photo-ops.


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