Tuesday, August 21, 2007

How does this attract and keep good teachers?

An item in yesterday's DesNews reinforced what Rep. Greg Hughes told Lt. Governor Gary Herbert on the Bob Lonsberry show last week: Utah faces a teacher shortage. But diagnosis of the illness isn't the same as a prescription for a cure, and while Rep. Hughes and others have adequately diagnosed the ailment, none has yet offered a realistic prescription.

"Jordan, Alpine, Davis and Salt Lake City school districts combined reported nearly 150 teacher vacancies as late as Thursday," writes Jennifer Toomer-Cook, Laura Hancock and Tiffany Erickson. "School district bosses say they're getting creative in recruiting and keeping teachers in a profession that's become, for rookies at least, a revolving door. But that's getting harder, too. The issue largely comes down to money. And in a state that spends the least per student in the country, districts don't have much of it."

But while teachers are in short supply, students enrolling in public schools are not, she writes: "Utah's student enrollment is expected to grow from 540,000 to more than 680,000 students by 2014. At the same time, Utah will need 44,000 new teachers, according to a Utah Educator Supply and Demand study by Utah State University."

Toomer-Cook has learned that "fewer people want to become teachers."

Is it any wonder? Upon passage of this year's budget, lawmakers congratulated themselves for adding a record number of new dollars to the budget for public education -- just enough to keep Utah in 51st place in student expenditures. Sure, they deserve congratulations for investing needed resources in our public schools. But there appears to be a wide gulf between doing 'more' and doing 'enough'. Did they do more this year? Sure. Did they do enough? Well, here's where we find that wide gulf.

"Of Utah's some 9,000 new teachers licensed between 2000 and 2004, fewer than half remained in Utah public schools by the 2004-05 school year," Toomer-Cook writes.

Have any surveys been done of those teachers who went to college to become teachers, earned degrees that would make them teachers, became certified to be teachers, were hired to serve as teachers, and then who left the profession before their fifth anniversary in it? I don't know of any. But I think the average Utahn might imagine what such a survey would say. We might hear phrases like "overflowing classrooms" and "could earn a better income elsewhere." How do you overcome answers like those? The question reminds me of that game show, "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" Faced with just these facts, a fifth-grader could offer a good answer.

And last week, Rep. Hughes gave Lt. Governor Herbert that answer in his radio interview: Raise teacher salaries to a competitive level, and hire more teachers to reduce class size.

Plenty of our leaders know the good answer. But the gulf between knowing the good answer and making it a legislative priority is as wide as the gulf between doing 'more' and doing 'enough'.

If that's not enough to ponder, let's add one more point: How does House Bill 148 -- the voucher plan that we're all going to vote on in November -- help Utah attract and keep good teachers, and how does it help reduce class size? And if it does neither, why are we spending public tax dollars on it, rather than the real challenges?