Bringhurst: Utah Lawmakers Should Prioritize Teachers in High Poverty Schools


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By Maggie Bringhurst, Opinion Writer


The Effective Teachers in High Poverty Schools Incentive Program was first passed in 2017 and aimed to recruit and retain qualified teachers at schools in high poverty areas with a salary bonus. This session, House Bill 315 would expand eligibility to kindergarten teachers, special education teachers and part-time teachers.

However, in 2020, the Utah State Board of Education reported that no strong evidence indicated that the program’s salary bonus improved teacher retention and recruitment. After such a critical review, some might wonder why the legislature would continue funneling money into the program.

We shouldn’t expect a government salary bonus to fix teacher retention issues. H.B. 315 should pass because it provides meaningful support for teachers, who struggle more than almost any other profession at this stage of the pandemic.

Efficacy of the Program

The incentive program intends to improve teacher retention and recruitment in high poverty schools by throwing money at them. But most teachers have left the profession because of stress and burnout rather than wages.

Seven out of nine Utah teachers cited exhaustion or burnout as an influential factor in leaving the profession, according to the USBE’s 2020 report on the program. Five out of nine cited needing a higher salary as a factor.

Still, 48% of teachers from the same report said the salary bonus influenced their personal career decisions. Although it may not be the deciding factor in their career choice, teachers view bonuses as recognition and a form of motivation. One teacher reported, “The salary bonus has nudged me to stay at a Title I school.” The report compares this to 21 teachers who considered either leaving the profession or moving to a different school despite the salary bonus.

Research on a similar incentive program in Washington found the program sufficiently retained teachers and reduced turnover. Decades of nationwide research suggests that financial compensation can effectively retain teachers.

As for recruitment, local education agencies have hardly utilized the incentive program at all. 72% of teacher respondents didn’t know about the program prior to taking the position. This demonstrates the issue with evaluating the efficacy of the program based on recruitment and retention. Local education agencies’ implementation of the program is likely the reason for its lack of retention and recruitment. However, the government is not the correct actor to fix these problems.

Districts and Training Programs Can Help

Though this incentive program has the potential to reduce teacher turnover, we shouldn’t solely rely on it. School districts and training programs can better retain teachers.

Utah has also experienced a staffing shortage because of high turnover rate for new teachers. Although our teacher turnover is actually one of the lowest in the country, new teacher turnover surpasses the national average.

New teachers aren’t prepared for the classroom. Teacher training programs play a notable role in teacher retention. Utah teachers who graduated from Weber State’s teaching program have a significantly smaller turnover rate than teachers who graduated from other state schools. Weber’s Teacher Assistant Pathway to Teaching program provides aspiring teachers with financial support and mentoring. The program sets the teachers up for a real classroom experience, so their expectations aren’t subverted when they begin teaching.

The Salary Bonus is Important

The United States was experiencing a teacher shortage before the pandemic. Schools in high-poverty communities struggled the most then, and they continue to be hit hardest now. We should utilize our resources to keep experienced teachers in these schools. This includes expanding eligibility for the salary bonus to kindergarten teachers, special education teachers and part-time teachers, because they are suffering just as much as other educators.

Parents turned school board meetings into political protests. The Utah legislature revoked the option for schools to go online at their discretion during the pandemic. Students are unmotivated and enrollment has dropped. These circumstances leave teachers more burned out now than ever before.

More than half of public school educators in the U.S. said they plan to leave the field sooner than they planned because of the stress from the pandemic. In 2021, this number was only one-fourth of teachers. Without immediate solutions that number will continue to rise.

In January, Gov. Spencer Cox addressed the teacher shortage by signing an executive order allowing state employees to act as substitute teachers in public and private schools. According to Utah Code, the legislature expects every classroom to be staffed by a skilled and effective teacher. Public schools in high-poverty districts have coped with the worst of the staffing shortages for several years. As the pandemic exacerbates the problem, it only makes sense to continue expanding their resources. Voting against H.B. 315 would signal a lack of concern for our crumbling education system.

Our Teachers Deserve Better

I support this bill because it allocates funds to teachers who deserve it. Teachers who choose to continue teaching in the direst circumstances should receive some additional compensation.

Our legislation should work harder to not only return our schools to pre-pandemic staffing status, but to do better than before.

The incentive program might not be the most effective way to retain teachers, but has proven to be effective in other avenues. A salary bonus is a straightforward way for our government to signal to teachers that they are appreciated and valued. While our schools are facing unprecedented staffing shortages, the least our government can do is show some appreciation.


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