Opinions vary on reasons for Utah’s low teacher salaries

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The aftermath of the recession has not lessened for some aspects of the economy — including education, which has only receded deeper into the realm of budget cuts and increased teacher responsibilities.

“When you’re nickel-and-diming the education these kids are receiving, I think down the road you’re going to pay for that,” said Steve Ellis, principal of Fike High School in North Carolina, on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.” “And it gets frustrating as a principal because I know I can’t do but so much more, and the teachers can’t either. [It’s] not a Democrat or a Republican issue … it’s an American issue.”

Tough fiscal times for states has led to an inability to allocate the same sufficient funds toward education as they used to — especially with the budget gaps at least 40 states must close by the year’s end — but the decisions as to where the money goes can become controversial.

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Nancy West teaches a Chinese Immersion class at Wasatch Elementary in Provo.
With state officials pledging not to raise taxes, and with budget shortfalls on the rise, an easy way to balance the budget is by attacking one of the biggest chunks in the state budget — K-12 education. But when children’s education is on the line, it is vital that money be pumped into the system and that it is pumped into prioritized areas.

“There’s a lot of money just being thrown away at the district,” said Leslie Morris, a fourth-grade teacher at Monte Vista Elementary School in Jordan District. “For things like building new offices and paying people that just sit at the office and don’t really do anything. I know there’s got to be people there for insurance and HR, but there’s also people that sit at their front desks and hang out all day that get paid probably as much as I do. And I feel like there’s probably enough money — we’re just not using it very wisely.”

There are several areas a school must bleed its budget into, some of which include salaries, textbooks, equipment and supplies. The Utah state constitution guarantees a free public education for every child, and a determinant of that is taken to mean that school supplies should also be provided even if parents already provide it. This is a concern to many educators, as other states do not require school supplies and are thus are able to use that money for other things.

“I feel like a lot of the money that they spend even on supplies and computers and technology, if we took that money and used it for an aide in every classroom I think it would be better used,” Morris said. “And the kids would improve more than they do with having a computer in the classroom.”

While money is being fed into school supplies for kids, it is being yanked out of extracurricular and elective classes, teaching positions, professional development courses for educator learning, buses and raises.

“You’ve got cuts to before-school and after-school programs, summer school programs,” said Sean Cavanagh, state policy reporter for Education Week, on “Talk of the Nation.” “You’ve got cuts to remedial education for struggling learners and for gifted learners. So the budget ax has fallen really hard on districts, and it’s struck in many different ways.”

Some might say these are necessary adjustments that are no longer affordable with the shortfalls, but there is a lot of outrage over money misuse, whether through waste or through misguided prioritizing of available money.

“The biggest area we’ve had to cut is our professional development for teachers,” said Tom Little, principal of Monte Vista Elementary School. “Without that, it is very difficult for us to advance ourselves. They still want us to do it but its on our own time and out of our own pockets. Because of that, it’s really difficult to have teachers volunteer to come in and do it.”

Schools are filtering less money into professional development and are thus not encouraging teachers to be better and get more education. When those classes and raises are the first things to go in a budget cut, teacher morale hits bottom.

“Last year I had 32 kids — there are only 28 slots in my contract time,” Morris said. “It makes a big difference and I never got compensated for the extra time I spent. As for the professional development classes, if we felt like we were getting compensated at all in any way, then we would want to make ourselves better educators. I feel like we are not valued by the community, by parents and we just get [told] all the time about how terrible the education system is.”

With budget cuts slicing directly into teacher salaries, raises and start-up money (for the classroom), it is no surprise teachers feel attacked and undermined. They are not given money for class projects, for classroom decorations or supplies.

“Our teachers do very well with what they have,” Little said. “Though they have very little. We used to get $500-$600 for a new teacher, but now it’s capped at $100. You can’t do anything with that. Teachers pull a lot of money from their own pockets, which is hard for me to swallow because I know they don’t make enough for that.”

Seeking a master’s degree in teaching has also been degraded — while such an education usually merits great praise, if not a substantial raise, rarely does it foster regret. In Morris’ case, she regrets her decision to further educate herself simply because she is not compensated for it and does not feel rewarded for her ambition.

“The year I graduated they froze the salaries,” Morris said. “My raise was only $1,000 a year, if that. I was like, ‘Who’s going to pay my student loans?’ I don’t know if it was really worth it when I don’t get any credit for it, nobody said good job, I don’t really get paid for it. Again, we just aren’t really being encouraged to become better professionals.”

Teachers are what drive education, and when money is going into technology and computer labs over teacher raises and classroom budgets, educators are concerned over budget priorities.

“The kids don’t learn too much from using a computer lab for 20 minutes a day,” Morris said. “There’s probably smarter ways they could spend it by getting more teachers in and more specialists and to help the kids one on one. Those are the priorities.”

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