Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know Arizona teachers are struggling.
Our educators are some of the lowest paid in the nation. Even after a recent round of pay raises, elementary teacher pay still ranks 49th nationally, which is the same ranking prior to #RedForEd.
The pay is so dismal that we’re in our fifth consecutive year of a massive teacher shortage crisis, one that has left more than 1,400 classrooms without a full-time teacher and thousands more led by untrained teachers.
The question isn’t if our teachers and support staff need pay raises but rather how much of a salary bump is needed to keep them in the classroom.
Our neighboring state, Utah, just might have the answer.
Like Arizona, Utah is struggling to retain its teachers. Unlike Arizona, they have a Republican governor who wants to do something about it.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has publicly called for teacher pay raises and supported a group of leaders working to determine how big of an increase is needed to keep teachers in the classroom.
Raising the starting salary to $60,000.
The group settled on $60,000 after interviews with teachers who left the profession early, as well as college students who considered majoring in education.
Unsurprisingly, $60,000 is also what’s considered a livable wage for families in Utah.
Here in Arizona, the average starting salary for district teachers in the 2018-19 school year was $36,299, according to information provided by the Arizona Education Association.
That’s a far cry from what the Utah study determined as optimal.
Even when accounting for all teachers, including those who’ve been in the classroom for decades or those with advanced degrees or certifications, Arizona’s average teacher pay is far short of $60,000, with most schools this academic year paying in the $40,000-$50,000 range.
It’s no wonder so many college students are opting out of an education degree. Why accumulate tens of thousands in student loan debt for a degree that doesn’t pay a livable wage and offers few options to advance?
In Utah, community leaders have seen the light and now have a goal to work toward. In Arizona? Not so much.
Here, our GOP-controlled Legislature seems more interested in punishing the teachers who participated in #REDforED than in understanding the economic forces that led to a walkout or working to ensure there is no need for it to happen again.
Same goes for Gov. Doug Ducey. He’s far too busy throwing Trump-inspired temper tantrums over a judge who chastised him for not following the law than he is in understanding the basic principles of supply and demand.
It’s possible Arizona doesn’t need to raise starting salaries to $60,000 to keep and retain high quality teachers.
Many of the educators I’ve spoken with over the past few years have said they’d accept lower pay if they had access to more support staff and smaller classroom sizes. Considering our state has the highest student-to-teacher ratios in the nation, that request seems more than reasonable.
But to date, no one in this state has conducted a study to see what the magic salary number is, or what combination of other factors would specifically address our teacher shortage crisis.
Our students will continue to fall behind nationally and regionally because we are now the outlier. Utah isn’t the only state making teacher pay a priority.
New Mexico recently boosted pay for new teachers to $41,000 while increasing pay for teachers with additional certifications to $50,000 and $60,000.
Idaho followed suit, increasing all of the pay levels on its “career ladder” so that $40,000 was the lowest pay possible. Compare that to Arizona, where some schools start teachers below $30,000, and it’s easy to understand why our teacher shortage persists.
So, how do we resolve this crisis? Is $60,000 the magic number? Or is it a combination of factors such as higher pay scales combined with lower class sizes?
We’ll never know until we have leaders with the courage to ask the questions and the will to implement the answers.