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Utah teacher turnover may be higher than previously reported
January 25, 2017

SALT LAKE CITY — Teacher turnover in Utah after eight years in the classroom could be as high as 56 percent, a soon-to-be-released report suggests.

The report indicates that teacher turnover is greater than previously understood, Sydnee Dickson, state superintendent of public instruction, told the Utah Legislature's Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee Tuesday.

"We've been saying about 48 percent of our teachers were leaving in the first five years. We think you're going to see some numbers that are more like 58 percent," Dickson said.

The turnover contributes to a teacher shortage and precious education dollars, she added.

"That churn of teachers means we're probably wasting $10,000 a year per teacher who leaves. That's a lot of money going out of our system when we're not retaining effective teachers," she said.

Still, Dickson said she remains optimistic about the profession, particularly during a legislative session in which education funding is top of mind.

"I love that we're all in a place this year that we're all talking about funding and it's not about, 'Should we fund schools at a greater level?' but 'How do we get there?' I love that everybody is talking about 'how' instead of 'if,'" she said.

Later in the day, during Senate leaders' daily briefing to the media, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, was reluctant to predict whether lawmakers would raise taxes this session to bring in more money for education.

“What the probabilities are, I just don’t know. My gut reaction is the probability is on the low side. But I would have also said the Legislature passing a property tax increase of $75 million would have on the probability low side,” Niederhauser told reporters.

“It’s a legislative session, things change, perspective changes and we respond in ways we never thought we would.”

Niederhauser said he did not want to prejudice the outcome. But the Senate leader said if the increase can be justified in terms of outcomes, “there’s a chance we might respond in some way. Then again, it may be politically too hard at this point.”

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said the question will be how much money can be found for schools without a tax increase.

Hilliard, who served as Senate budget chairman for many years, said this is not a bad year for revenues.

“It’s a standard year,” he said. “We’re not doing poorly. We’re doing fine."

Goal: Education a top performer

As the appropriations subcommittee began its work Tuesday to prepare budget recommendations for Utah's public schools, the group heard the education perspectives of a national task force that studied best practices across the globe to state initiatives to make Utah the nation's leader in education.

Tami Pyfer, education adviser to Gov. Gary Herbert, said just as Utah's economy is a top performer nationwide "we would like to do the same thing for education and we believe it can happen."

The governor's 33-member Education Excellence Commission is working toward that goal, she said.

The group's 10-year plan is built around four core principles: completing certificates and degrees; supporting early learning; strengthening and supporting educators; ensuring access and equity.

Family and community support is a key factor as well, she said.

“The umbrella over everything is innovation and collaboration," Pyfer said.

Local control is crucial to ensure that individual needs of school districts and other local education authorities are met.

Weighted pupil unit

Officials in the Daggett School District, which has fewer than 200 students, told the governor they do not need more technology because the district has three devices to every student, Pyfer said.

They said, "What we need is transportation funding. That's where we're really struggling," she recounted. "We hear those kind of comments wherever we go. 'We are OK here but we need more funding here.' The WPU is the vehicle that provides that flexibility. That's why you hear us talk so much about investing in the WPU and providing both a consistent investment for the WPU and the student growth," she said.

The WPU — weighted pupil unit — is the basic unit of education funding in Utah. It accounts for about half of all education funding in the state and it is appropriated according to enrollment.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper and a member of a National Conference of State Legislatures' study group that examined best practices in education globally, found that most state education systems in the United States are falling behind the rest of the world.

"We learned that one of the consequences of not being internationally competitive in education is not being internationally competitive economically," he said.

The group's report, "No Time to Lose," says not only is the United States "outperformed by a majority of the advanced industrial nations, but by a growing number of less-developed nations as well."

The Programme for International Student Assessment, a comparative study of 15-year-old students' knowledge of reading, math and science, showed the United States ranked in the middle of countries surveyed. In 2012, the U.S. ranked 24th in reading, 28th in science and 36th in math.

Utah students are not assessed using the assessment, so it is difficult to drill down to Utah comparisons, he said.

Lessons to be learned

Still, there are lessons to be learned from top-performing countries, Stephenson said.

They place a high emphasis on early learning, they are committed to providing students with high-quality teachers and a highly effective and intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education.

In recent years, Utah has placed a higher emphasis on early learning, which is encouraging, he said.

Stephenson noted that some top-performing countries also have large class sizes, some that are "much larger" than Utah's, he said.

"That's how it is they can pay their teachers more like other professionals," he said.

Spending per student is also lower than the United States, he said.

"The way they're able to do that is they repurpose the funding in ways that make the biggest difference so they're able to pay their teachers commensurate with other professionals. We have that capacity, too, by repurposing the money rather than just keep throwing more and more money to that system," he said.

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche