Hard Lessons

Arizona schools and teacher pay remain underfunded

Arizona is ranked 49th in the nation for elementary school teacher pay and 48th for secondary teacher pay.
Arizona is ranked 49th in the nation for elementary school teacher pay and 48th for secondary teacher pay.

For years, arizona teachers have struggled to make ends meet, while working in classrooms that are overcrowded, under-supplied and falling apart. This reality came to a climax last year, when the Red for Ed movement descended onto the capital and put pressure on the state government to adequately fund public schools.

Gov. Doug Ducey responded with a public campaign to increase teacher salaries 20 percent by the year 2020. State lawmakers championed their "commitment to education" and called it a day.

All the while, Arizona is ranked 49th in the nation for elementary school teacher pay and 48th for secondary school teachers. Our neighbors are doing significantly better.

New Mexico is ranked 30th, Colorado is 46th, Utah is 24th, Nevada is 26th and California is third, according to Expect More Arizona's progress meter.

The nonprofit tracks average teacher pay through the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and adjusts for inflation and costs of living, in order to create a ranking system that portrays how well or poorly each state is paying their teachers.

"We wanted something to really get to the teacher recruitment and retention crisis," said Christine Thompson, the CEO of Expect More Arizona. "Unfortunately Arizona doesn't have data specifically for recruitment and retention, we felt that teacher pay is an excellent proxy. But obviously, teacher pay isn't the only issue that keeps excellent teachers in the classroom."

When people hear of the "20 by 2020" promise, they are inclined to believe that those yearly increases are compounding to keep up with inflation, but they're not. The 20 percent is based on what pay was in the 2016-2017 fiscal year.

By next year, teachers are supposed to receive another 5 percent increase. According to the progress meter, the average annual salary for Arizona elementary teachers is $45,353. The national average is $58,230.

"I didn't agree to a vow of poverty," said Sandy Faulk, a teacher at Twin Peaks Elementary. "I didn't expect to be paid like a CEO, but teachers have to work two and three jobs just to make ends meet. I think it's a travesty, because teaching itself is a full-time job and a half."

For some school districts, like Amphi Public Schools, the state funds received for the teacher pay increases weren't enough to accurately reflect the raises that teachers were promised.

"We had to use some of our inflation money that we're guaranteed by law to help augment the funds that we did receive so that it would represent 10 percent or 5 percent or what have you," said Amphitheater Superintendent Todd Jaeger.

He attributes this to the fact that the 20 percent is calculated based on average teacher pay across the state. In some rural districts teacher pay is lower than others, which brings down the average.

In urban districts that pay relatively more, a 20 percent increase costs more to enact, and those districts find themselves unable to fully fund it with the money they've received from the state.

Jaeger said Amphi has lost teachers to companies like Raytheon, where they are able to earn two to three times more than the school district can pay.

"While a big portion of what teachers do is drawn from their heart and they have a passion for helping children, we can't expect them and their families to make huge sacrifices for everyone else," Thompson said. "We need to pay them adequately, and I think part of that story is the draw of people leaving the teaching profession to go make more money in a profession that's aligned with their degree but will pay a tremendous amount more over time."

The 20 by 2020 plan also promises $371 million in District Additional Assistance over five years. That money is set to be used for classroom materials, updates to infrastructure and more money for support staff. But even that additional funding doesn't account for increasing costs.

Jaeger said the recent increase to the minimum wage has also strained the district's budget, because the state provided no additional funding to help with compliance. While the state government itself is exempted from that law, school districts are not.

"School districts in Arizona, unlike many other states, we don't get to determine how much we can raise in taxes," Jaeger said. "We are constrained and limited by state law as to how much funding we receive."

Last year, a coalition of teachers, parents, students and education supporters came up with Prop. 207, which intended to raise income tax rates on the state's highest earners to create a larger tax revenue base for public education.

The idea gained significant support, but was eventually struck down by the Arizona Supreme Court, which argued the proposition "did not accurately represent the increased tax burden on the affected classes of taxpayers."

"That would have provided an extremely consistent high revenue source for our students in our schools," said Faulk, who is also president of the Marana Education Association.

These local and statewide unions work together to advocate for legislation, sit on committees and raise public awareness of school funding needs. Faulk said MEA was heavily involved in the Red for Ed demonstrations last year.

"The students who are in our schools right now have never seen a fully-funded classroom," she said. "That means smaller class sizes, that means access to services, that means opportunities for more support staff in our schools and more programs. When you add all of that up it's a more holistic picture than just teacher salaries."

Two years ago, Faulk had 32 sixth-graders enrolled in her classroom. Across the country, more than 20 states enforce a 20-to-1 student-teacher ratio.

Thompson, with Expect More Arizona, notes that the student to counselor ratio in Arizona is 900 to 1. Without adequate support staff, teachers are not only underpaid, but they are faced with additional responsibilities not included in their job descriptions.

"They have a lot of other responsibilities to take care of that aren't necessarily classroom responsibilities, but they're things that need to get done in order to make sure students can have a positive experience," Thompson said. "When you don't have counselors in your school, who does that responsibility fall to?"

Many who work in education attribute the downfall of education funding to the market crash of 2008. Thompson said that had a huge impact in the state's ability to fund all of education, pre-k through college, while Arizona experienced "explosive growth" in schools.

"Where there may have been other states that were contracting and losing students, Arizona has seen steady growth in students and the funding per student has lessened over time," she said.

Other states have recovered their education systems at a faster rate than Arizona. The funding here is still at a pre-recession level, even with Gov. Ducey's 20 by 2020 increases. Quality schools encourage economic development, which could be at risk if nothing changes.

"As other states are ensuring that their education systems are recovering much faster, we're losing that pipeline and we've really got to do something as state to make sure that our progress continues," Jaeger said. "That's going to take teachers. Teachers are the most important profession there is, because they make all others possible." ■

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