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A teacher in school.

The state needs a comprehensive plan for solving the state’s teacher pay and retention problem.

​In lieu of a comprehensive policy on the state level to deal with a growing shortage of public school teachers, at least three large school districts are taking matters into their own hands by looking for ways to increase teacher pay. Their plans will probably involve increases in property taxes, even while the Legislature has looked at but so far rejected calls to raise taxes for additional education funding.

​In a perfect world, there would be more guidance from state lawmakers on how to deal with a legitimate crisis in recruiting and retaining a sufficient number of qualified educators. With districts acting on their own, we face the risk of what some educators are calling an “arms race” among schools competing with each other on the hiring front. While district leaders are doing what they feel they need to do to staff their classrooms, their actions could eventually lead to disparities in the qualifications of the teaching corps between wealthier districts and those with a shallower property tax well to dip into. It’s in the state’s interest to avoid that scenario.

Utah is among the states that employ a weighted student funding formula to allocate money to school districts. A big reason for using “weighted pupil units” is to prevent inequities in the quality of education offered by schools in different parts of the state, or even within the same district. The policy dictates that about the same amount of state money will be spent on the education of a given student regardless of where he or she goes to school. Putting districts in a position where they have to raise money on their own to afford qualified teachers runs contrary to this philosophy. Nonetheless, that’s the direction in which the Utah public education system seems to be drifting.

The Granite District announced it would raise starting pay for teachers from $37,000 to $41,000 and give existing teachers a raise of about 11.6 percent. To pay for it, the district is considering a property tax increase of about $16 million, which would amount to $75 to $100 a year for a $250,000 home. The Canyons and Jordan districts are working on comparable pay scale boosts, which, in Jordan’s case, may also result in future property tax increases.

That the districts are willing to go so far to boost teacher pay is a testament to how serious the problem of keeping good teachers has become. More than half of all teachers leave their jobs within eight years, and the number of prospective teachers coming out of college education programs has dropped sharply in recent years. Pay is also not aligning with market rates in areas such as science and math.

Lawmakers have given voice to the problem, but little else. A bill to offer bonuses to teachers who work in low-income communities was approved, as was a boost to school funding that generally allows for a 3 percent increase in teacher pay. That three districts are acting to more than double that increase shows the problem demands more than the incremental approach so far favored by those who hold the purse strings on Capitol Hill.