A shortage of teachers in Arizona’s public school classrooms has education groups, school administrators, business groups and the Department of Education spreading the word, figuring out the scope of the problem and looking for solutions.
The situation has left the state with large numbers of new teachers and many older ones facing retirement — but a lack of those in between.
Rural schools have always had trouble attracting and keeping quality teachers and there are never enough math, science and special education teachers. But data on the state’s public schools compiled by the Arizona Department of Education show annual retention hovers around 65 percent, 35 percent of the teachers have less than two years of experience and possibly tens of thousands have left the state’s teacher force in the past five years, an exodus that superintendents say is because of low pay and no raises.
Educators are also bracing for a mass retirement of Baby Boomers in coming years.
Debbie Burdick, superintendent of Cave Creek Unified School District, said she is comfortable hiring first-year teachers so long as they are under the wing of master teachers, but she thinks that a work force with so many teachers with two years or less experience is too high. In all, 57 percent of Arizona’s teachers have less than five years of experience.
She said research has proven the link between a good teacher and student achievement, but Arizona is losing that game because teachers are leaving the profession due to low salaries, onerous state requirements, and a new, negative image of teachers.
“There was a time when teachers were revered and thanked for their work with children and students,” Burdick said. “Nobody was ever going to get rich being a teacher, but they could at least make a living of it.”
Arizona is ranked nationally 43rd and 29th respectively for average starting salary and average overall salary for teachers, according to the National Education Association.
Arizona schools saw a roughly 65 percent retention rate in the 2012-13 school-year, according to the latest Department of Education statistics. And it is unknown where 10 percent, or 6,300, of the teachers who left their respective schools went, meaning they could have left the profession or moved to another state.
Burdick said the teachers who move to new districts typically go to larger ones whose voters passed budget overrides, which allows districts to increase their maintenance and operations budget by up to 15 percent, in turn allowing for higher teacher salaries. She said those type of districts can pay teachers about $8,000 more per year than hers.
Paul Stanton, superintendent of Humboldt Unified School District, said the Greater Phoenix Education Management Council, a coalition of 42 school districts, looked at data from the Arizona State Retirement System and found that a startling 72,177 employees have left the system before retiring in the last five years. The statistics did not distinguish teachers and principals from other employees such as secretaries or IT techs.
Dianne Smith, executive director of the Greater Phoenix Education Management Council, said the group found that of 104,666 public school employees who are in the Arizona State Retirement System, 25,000 Baby Boomers are eligible to retire in the next five years.
Stanton said the state’s economy will eventually suffer from a teacher shortage.
“When a business comes into the community, they look at the teacher turnover rate, they look at the teacher salaries, they look at the factors that impact having great educators in the classroom,” Stanton said.
Susan Carlson, president and executive director of the Arizona Business and Education Coalition, said business leaders are taking notice and are concerned because they already are having problems finding qualified job candidates.
“What we have now is not only a hiring crisis for the best and brightest teachers, but it links directly to an economic future for this state — not just high tech, but particularly for our mid-sized small businesses to enable them to compete,” Carlson said.
And Burdick, who is president-elect of the Arizona School Administrators Association, said a survey she conducted in November found that 62 percent of school districts still had job openings.
Smith said that when all of that information was first made public the sentiment was there are plenty of people with teaching certificates to fill the spots.
“As we really started to talk about the issues and the statistics of what was happening, then people really started to say, ‘Wow, we understand your points,’” Smith said.
Smith said her group took the information to the Governor’s Office, lawmakers and the Department of Education.
The department put together the 15-member Educator Recruitment and Retention Task Force in April.
Cecilia Johnson, an associate deputy superintendent with the department, said the task force has broken up into three work groups that are researching the problem locally and nationally, a group that is looking at the policies of the state and school districts and a third group that is gathering data.
The plan is for the group to pass on its recommendations to the State Board of Education and lawmakers by Sept. 30.
“While there is probably not any magic bullet, there are a variety of ways we can look at this,” Johnson said.
Smith, who is on the task force, said the answer isn’t just more money for teachers to stay in the classroom.
For example, she said the state can tweak its policy on reciprocity, making it easier for teachers who are certified in other states to become certified in Arizona.
“We maybe will look at one or two issues the Legislature or Governor’s Office could address,” Smith said.
Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, a member of the House Education Committee, said lawmakers are beginning to become aware of the issue.
“The talk among members is ‘Yes, we are interested,’” said Carter, an associate professor at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story initially incorrectly attributed the National Education Association as a source in reporting that Arizona ranked 41st and 42nd nationally in average starting pay for teachers and average overall teacher salary. That information came from a Grand Canyon University study on teacher shortages. The NEA 2012-13 data shows Arizona is ranked 43rd nationally for average starting teacher salary and 29th for average teacher salary.