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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s teacher shortage is the No. 1 education-related concern for residents, according to a new report from Envision Utah.
The online survey, conducted in conjunction with consulting firm Heart+Mind Strategies, found that 80 percent of the more than 1,000 respondents found the low teacher retention rate in Utah "very" or "extremely" concerning.
Nearly as many — 79 percent — said they found it concerning that many school districts in Utah are unable to find enough teachers to fill their classrooms as the student population continues to grow.
"We found a lot of strong feelings among Utahns that they wanted to do better on education than we're doing," said Ari Bruening, chief operating officer of Envision Utah, a nonprofit organization that conducts research on public values and growth in the state.
"Utahns are very concerned about the teacher shortage that we've having, they're concerned that teaching is not a respected career in Utah, and they strongly believe that having high-quality teachers is critical to the future," Bruening said.
The survey quizzed residents on several issues related to education. Other concerns that rose to the top include the United States' poor international showing in mathematics; Utah's middle-of-the-pack ranking on educational outcomes nationwide; and the fact that nearly one-third of Utah's children are living in economic hardship.
Bruening said Utah school districts have a hard time attracting teachers when salaries continue to lag behind the national average. As many as 42 percent of new teachers in Utah quit within five years of starting, according to Envision Utah.
"We know some of them didn't plan to be teaching for their whole careers," he said, "but when we have some of the lowest pay in the country and we have some of the largest classes in the country, it makes for a tough job."
Many Utahns also do not believe teaching is respected as a career, indicated by the 75 percent of respondents who said they do not think the best and brightest students want to become teachers, according to the report.
Yet 77 percent agreed that Utah teachers work hard for their children and deserve support.
Teacher quality is also an issue for Utahns, according to Bruening.
When asked what is most important when it comes to improving education, 84 percent of respondents said high teacher quality was “very important” or “absolutely essential.”
High levels of parental engagement came in second, with 76 percent ranking it "very important" or "absolutely essential."
"Some districts are saying that pretty much anyone who goes to a teaching program is going to get a job because we need them, whether or not they're the best candidates or the best graduate," Bruening said.
Envision Utah spokesman Jason Brown said the recent survey data shows that Utahns have "the right foundation" for making improvements because of the high value they place on teachers.
"There are probably some misunderstandings that we need to get on the same page on," Brown said. "But in a lot of ways, we have the groundwork understanding that is necessary for us to make significant improvements to the educational outcomes for Utahns."
Another recent survey published by Utah Foundation, a public policy research group, found that 40 percent of Utah voters named teacher quality as their top education priority, beating out college and career readiness, class size and test scores.
Forty-one percent of the respondents also said they would pay higher taxes to support public education; 32 percent said they would not.
The more conservative the voter, the less willing they are to increase taxes for education, according to the report.
"Voters’ high level of concern about education is somewhat aligned with their willingness to increase taxes for education,” Utah Foundation research director Shawn Teigen said in a statement accompanying the report. “While not a majority, it is interesting to see that more voters would agree than disagree with paying higher taxes that are directed toward education. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: DaphneChen_