As the politics of education has brought several reforms to Arizona in recent years, some of them revolutionary, educators say teachers have been fleeing the state, the profession, or to better paying jobs in more affluent districts.
The teacher flight has gone relatively unnoticed by the public and policymakers, but not educators, who say the next public policy project is to figure out a way to find and keep good teachers in the state.
The Arizona Department of Education has formed a 15-member task force to do that and it will be looking at a variety of ideas.
Cecilia Johnson, associate deputy superintendent for the department, said the data so far show there is a “possibility” that the shortage will turn into a crisis, especially since the work force is aging.
Data show that about 25 percent of the state’s public school workers are eligible for retirement in 2018.
Johnson said the task force, dubbed Educators Recruitment and Retention Task Force, is going to look at that data and county-by-county retention data and compare it nationally to see where Arizona stands and develop a baseline.
“This isn’t just an Arizona issue, this is a national issue,” Johnson said.
Arizona’s retention rate runs from a low of 55 percent in Pinal County to a high of 70 percent in Graham County, and the task force is going to look at why that is.
Johnson said other examples of the task force’s work are to examine the state’s certification approval process and look at what the state’s universities are doing to recruit and retain students in their teacher colleges.
She said the department is already working to streamline the processes for teachers to look up data on their students for planning and accountability purposes, which will allow them to spend more time teaching, the reason they became teachers in the first place.
“We’re going to cut significant hours where teachers are having to, by hand, look up individual students’ scores and compile that data, which takes hours and days to do,” Johnson said.
Susan Carlson, executive director of the Arizona Business and Education Coalition, which has always been in favor of more funding for public schools, predicted that addressing the teacher shortage will be part of a larger debate of reforming the state’s funding formula for K-12 education.
Carlson said the combination of low teacher salaries and low per-pupil funding — both of which are in the lower quadrant in the nation — make it difficult to recruit and keep good teachers.
“You almost wonder why they would want to come to Arizona,” Carlson said.
In recent years, the Legislature has instituted several reforms to improve student performance and accountability of schools and teachers.
Schools and districts are subject to grading and risking state intervention or closure if they don’t perform. Students must be able to read at grade level by the third grade or be retained in their grade. Special needs students and a host of other categories of students are allowed to use public money for private schools. And the state Board of Education adopted Common Core, known here as Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards, a set of learning standards designed to make students think more critically in English and math, making them more prepared for higher education and the work force.
Spending went down, however, as lawmakers addressed an economic downturn that ravaged the state budget.
Meanwhile, superintendents began comparing notes and realized many were experiencing the same thing: more job openings as the school year progressed and teachers citing low salaries as reasons for leaving, said Paul Stanton, superintendent of Humboldt Unified School District in Yavapai County.
The same thing is happening with principals, Stanton said.
The loss of educators means the loss of institutional memory and the investment in training them, he said.
The alphabet-soup of assorted education groups were each doing their own data gathering on the issue and they began presenting it to the department, lawmakers and the Governor’s Office last year and early this year.
Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, said a group of superintendents briefed him and other Democrats about the potential crisis early in the 2014 session, but the issue went nowhere.
“It’s only going to get worse unless we take some steps to increase teachers’ pay, and maybe signing bonuses, and bonuses when teachers stay in the profession for five years,” Meyer said.
Jennifer Liewer, a Department of Education spokeswoman, said the task force is going to be looking at long-term solutions, not quick fixes, and will report a set of recommendations to the state Board of Education in late September.
Johnson said another issue the task force will tackle is how to elevate teaching as a profession and market some of the altruistic components of teaching, such as service to the community and preparing children for the future.
“We are trying to figure out ways to make the teaching profession attractive, that this is a model career,” Johnson said.e