UEA president, former Park City educator, sees no shortage of challenges ahead
Matthews hopes to address equity among districts, teacher shortage
Like teachers and administrators throughout Utah, Heidi Matthews understands the many challenges educators are facing as budget crunches and a teacher shortage ripple through the state. But unlike many of her peers, she is in prime position to do something about them.
Matthews, a former librarian in the Park City School District, is entering her second year as the president of the Utah Education Association (UEA), the union that represents thousands of teachers statewide. The position provides her a prominent pulpit and makes her one of the most influential educators in the state.
After observing the educational landscape in her first year, Matthews is hoping to use the UEA’s might to move the needle on some of the biggest issues affecting school districts and their students. Chief among them, she said, is ensuring all students around the state receive high-quality educations — not just the ones who live within the boundaries of wealthier districts.
A lack of equity in that respect, she said, is perhaps what has stood out to her most since taking the helm of the UEA. In many areas of the state, students attend lower-performing schools while the boundaries of better districts are just miles away.
The gap was widened in the spring when several school systems throughout the state, including Park City’s, announced significant raises for educators. Matthews said she was heartened to see so many districts make investments in teachers — the UEA has advocated higher salaries for years — but it meant school systems without the cash to offer bigger paychecks fell further behind.
“We have enormous disparities in salaries,” she said. “I think 20 miles separates $17,000 in beginning salaries and more like $30,000 in ending salaries (in some places). That’s just not equitable. Some of these districts simply can’t compete for teachers.”
From Matthews’ perspective, an increase in funding could level the playing field in a state that has for years ranked last in the nation in per-pupil spending. To that end, the UEA has gotten behind Our Schools Now, an initiative aiming to get a measure on the ballot in 2018 to raise taxes for education spending. If the effort is successful, it would bump up the state income and sales tax rates .45 percent each and generate an estimated $700 million in revenue annually for education.
She said that poorer districts would receive larger chunks of the new money, which would make a big difference for their students.
Opponents of Our Schools Now say the tax increase would hurt Utah residents, dampen economic output and ultimately fail to grow revenues in the long run. But a poll released recently by Dan Jones & Associates indicated 57 percent of Utahns support the initiative, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly a wonderful first step in addressing the funding needs in our state and beginning to take the steps toward equitable funding,” Matthews said.
The windfall could also be a weapon in the fight against another major challenge the UEA is battling: the statewide teacher shortage. While the many salary increases this spring were a welcome first blow, Matthews does not expect them to reverse a trend that has seen Utah teachers leave the field at an alarming rate and fewer young people pursue the profession.
The problem is so severe that some districts have been left with a roster of teachers averaging just a few years of experience, Matthews said. However, compensation is only one part of the equation. Increased workloads with little reward have also made teaching less appealing, she said.
Districts must find ways to relieve those burdens and restore the luster to the profession if they’re going to start retaining enough teachers and recruiting new ones any time soon, she added.
“We need to stop studying and start acting and put into place things that will support teachers in the classrooms and entice the best and the brightest to enter the field,” she said. “Support them, nurture them throughout their careers, so our students have highly effective, experienced teachers who know how to teach.”
For more information about Our Schools Now, visit http://www.ourschoolsnow.com.