Arizona schools started this year with more vacancies than last year as more teachers chose to leave the classroom.
A new report Thursday by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association found the 150 school districts and charter schools that responded to this year’s survey said they found themselves with nearly 6,950 positions to be filled. That compares with fewer than 6,230 last year.
The good news, if you will, is that four weeks into the school year just one out of every five of those vacancies remained to be filed. Last year at this time the number was one in four.
But Justin Wing, past president of the association who put the report together, said that doesn’t mean schools were able to find more certified teachers.
He said districts have made up much of the difference by putting people who do not meet standard teaching requirements in front of classrooms. That includes those who are in a teacher intern program and those who have emergency teaching certificates, people who lack any actual training in how to teach but have some professional background in the subject like math or physics.
Other slots were filled by those whose certification has not yet been approved, with the reporting schools saying they had hired 314 people from other countries through professional visas that allow them to work here.
Yet even with all that, schools still reported they still have 1,444 positions where there are just no teachers to be had.
The largest share of these vacancies are currently being “filled” with long-term substitutes. But schools also have gotten creative, forcing existing teachers to take on additional classes, putting more children into classes than districts determine is suitable, and creating multi-grade classrooms.
Complicating the problem, according to the report, is that 283 teachers who they were counting on already have resigned this year, with another 81 that didn’t even report to work on the first day of school. And 63 simply abandoned their jobs.
The number of positions that schools needed to fill actually fell between the beginning of the 2017 school year and 2018. Wing credited that to the 10 percent salary boost enacted by the Legislature in the wake of the Red for Ed movement and the teacher strike.
“One of the things that it did is it retained teachers for a few more years than it normally would have,” he said.
Wing said he saw that in the Washington Elementary School District where he works.
“I had teachers in May (2018) when that Red for Ed occurred rescind their retirement because this was the biggest raise they ever received in their career,” he said.
More to the point, Wing said, is that staying on an extra year with a 10 percent higher salary directly increased their retirement benefits which are based on the highest paid 36 consecutive months of their past 10 years of work history.
But many of those people delayed their retirement for just one year to get that pension boost. The result was that bump this year in positions that need to be filled.
The other half of the problem, said Wing, is that universities in Arizona are just not producing the number of graduates that they once did.
“The pipeline’s not coming in,” he said.
Wing said some of that may relate to pay, with teacher salaries here still below the national average even with the state in the middle of the plan to raise the average by 20 percent over 2016 levels by 2020.
Gov. Doug Ducey has sought to address at least part of the issue with the creation of the Arizona Teachers Academy that gives some education students free tuition.
Gubernatorial press aide Patrick Ptak said 120 graduates of that program taught in public schools as part of an agreement for receiving a tuition waiver the prior year. And he said the new state budget adds $15 million to expand that program.
“With the new funding, the Teachers Academy is expected to grow to about 3,000 students,” he said.
Wing acknowledged the shortage of people wanting to go into teaching isn’t just an Arizona problem. He said that enrollment at colleges of education is lagging nationally, with the issue being not just overall salaries but also the belief by some that teachers are not respected.