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SALT LAKE CITY — Qualifying special educators could earn stipends starting at $4,000 annually under a legislative proposal that is similar to bonuses now paid to teachers of mathematics, some science disciplines and computer science.
The proposal by Rep. Val Potter, R-North Logan, and Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, would cap the stipends at $10,000 a year.
Potter, addressing the Utah Legislature's Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday, said the stipend is needed to address a shortage of special education teachers.
Class sizes are too large, he said, and there are "too many students per teacher in the classroom."
"Each student has individual issues that need to be taken care of. To better educate and train these students, we need to give them a better chance to be functional adults, and that requires some good teaching," Potter said.
"We need to offer an incentive, get more teachers with degrees in special education, and get them to stay in the profession by offering them a salary supplement," he said.
The Utah State Board of Education considers educators with special education training of critical need, Potter said.
Educational requirements to become math, science or special education teacher are more detailed and difficult than other teacher preparation programs, state officials said. However, special educators have the added responsibility of keeping detailed student records not required of other educators.
The proposal envisions paying eligible teachers a $4,000 minimum stipend to start and an additional $1,000 in successive years, capped at $10,000.
As proposed, the state would pay 100 percent of the $4,000 salary supplement. For bonuses above that amount, half would be paid by the state and half by the teacher's employer.
Presently, the state pays $4,100 for teacher stipends to start. Under this proposal, that starting bonus would drop by $100. However, all qualifying teachers would be eligible for increases in successive years up to $10,000.
Although the state has paid retirement and benefit costs associated with the stipend for math, science and computer science teachers since 2008, the proposal envisions that the supplement moving forward would not be included in compensation calculations for retirement purposes.
While most committee members were supportive of the proposal, some questioned whether school districts or charter schools are on board to pay half of the supplements above the state-funded $4,000.
Potter said it is important that school districts and charter schools have "skin in the game."
To compete for special educators, along with math and science educators, they will need to pay their share of the stipends because other districts likely will, he said.
Others suggested it may be more palatable not to mandate a specific dollar match but have the state offer to match whatever the local school district or charter school could pay above the base $4,000 stipend in successive years of the program.
"We could just say whatever the (local education agency) contributes, the state will match 50 percent," said Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said Utah needs to do more to compete for special educators trained in the state because they're being lured away by states that offer better pay.
"What I'm finding out is most of the students who move to Utah State (University) or Logan and complete the degree don't stay in Utah because they can leave the state of Utah and make so much more in other states. That really is a financial challenge to keep those teachers we train," Hillyard said.