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Education inequality has impact on public health

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As we recently passed the one-year anniversary of Arizona teachers walking out and demanding action from their policymakers, it is clear that to address education inequality we must continue to advocate for improved education funding in Arizona.

Since this issue is consistently wrapped in politics, we find it important to view it from a different perspective: what is the public health implication of education inequality and how is the way we treat our teachers interconnected? Facts are nice, so let’s include those, particularly regarding large class sizes, classroom funding, and shortage of teachers and how these relate to education inequality.

According to the Arizona K12 Center, the average classroom size for an Arizona teacher is 23.5 students per high school teacher and 24.5 students per elementary teacher. This is far higher than the national average of 17.7 per high school teacher and 21.6 per elementary teacher.

Large class sizes jeopardize learning and negatively affect the teacher’s ability to be productive and successful. Numerous studies show that when class sizes are smaller (19 students and less), students report learning more, enjoying school more, and being more engaged.

When so much pressure is put on students, teachers, and schools to produce positive test results, starting with the right class size matters. And so does wanting to attend school – if students don’t like their learning environment, or cannot connect to it, then they are less likely to complete school. If teachers are too stressed with crowd control, they are less likely to remain in their jobs. Education inequality begins with access to high quality learning experiences.

Classroom funding – or lack of – played a large role in the Arizona teachers’ strike. More than just basic raises (if you consider getting a pay bump up to $40,000 a “raise”), classroom funding ensures school supplies for students, updated technology, and again, a positive learning environment for both student and teacher.

Arizona spends approximately $7,500 per student each year, placing 49th position on funding per student in the United States. A recent study by the Department of Education suggests that approximately 94 percent of teachers spend their own money on school supplies to make up for this lack of funding, equating to approximately $479 per teacher per year.

Teachers are hard pressed to support themselves, in addition to providing for their classrooms. The average Arizona teacher makes around $48,000 a year, while the average starting teacher salary in Arizona is closer to $34,000 per year. Arizona ranks in the bottom 10 when it comes to starting teacher salaries across the United States, which can deter future teachers from coming to or remaining in Arizona to begin their careers. Teachers have consistently provided for students in need. Now, who can provide for teachers in need?

These reasons, and many more, have led to the Arizona teacher shortage. Alarmingly, according to the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association survey, 23 percent of teacher vacancies remained unfilled in 2018. This only perpetuates the cycle: shortage of teachers begets larger class sizes, begets less capital to support classroom (particularly out of teachers own pockets), begets longer hours worked, and so on and so forth. Inequality is always rooted in poverty. Education inequality is no different – it is rooted in poverty of social capital, political support, and money. And it is reflected in the way we treat our teachers.

Instead of formulating bills to gag teachers and prevent them from labor actions, as were proposed in the current legislative session, we should understand the many negative implications that result from burdening teachers and the learning environment. Education inequality is indeed a public health concern. Over one million students attend public schools in Arizona and these students are our future leaders. By not supporting their teachers, we as a society are setting those students up for failure. This is not about being money hungry, it’s about fairly paying teachers for the hard work they do to benefit our society; it’s about attempting to decrease education inequality. For this reason, we believe increasing teacher wages and education funding is incredibly important. In the words of Malcolm X, “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today,” our teachers are the key to students accomplishing this.

Jordan Arias, Lisa Balland, Jonathan Bell, Adam Berryhill, Wrandi Carter, and Emma Connors are graduate students at University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health.

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