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Education group fights for higher pay for East Valley teachers

by Expect More Arizona

The Arizona Education Progress Meter, a joint project from Expect More Arizona and the Center for the Future of Arizona, is challenging the state to raise elementary teacher pay to the national median within five years.

In order to meet the goal – which would see the median salary for elementary teachers in Arizona rise to $56,000 – the state will have to make a concerted effort to raise funding for education.

“I appreciate the work done by Expect More Arizona, and their partner organizations to outline state educational aspirations,” Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, said via email. “Achieving any of these goals will require not only state leadership, but also local participation, collaboration and ownership.”

She added that “having data accessible to the public that displays how we are doing with the education system is great, and I hope it will spur public participation in helping student achievement.”

Currently, the median elementary school teacher salary in Arizona of $42,730 ranks 48th in the nation behind Mississippi and Oklahoma, according to recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, a study by Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University from May found that Arizona’s elementary teacher pay ranked 50th in the country when cost-of-living adjustments were taken into consideration.

Several East Valley public school districts have higher average salaries than the state’s overall average of $46,384, according to the Arizona Auditor General’s report on school district spending for fiscal year 2016, though none currently reaches the national median.

Comparisons between average and median salaries are inexact because the measurements are calculated differently, though they both are meant to give a general picture of teacher pay.

Tempe Elementary School District ($39,936), Higley Unified School District ($43,789), and Queen Creek Unified School District ($42,529) fall below the state average, according to the Auditor General’s report.

The average teacher salary in Kyrene School District is $48,334.

In Mesa Public Schools, the average elementary teacher salary is $48,500, though the overall average salary for teachers, including secondary education teachers, in the district is $55,413.

The average teacher salary in Gilbert Public School District is $47,692.

Chandler Unified School District has one of the higher teacher salaries in the region with an average salary of $52,001. The district has been able to offer those wages due to continuous employment growth and the passage of override and bond elections.

The averages are likely inflated in districts like Chandler, Gilbert, Higley and Queen Creek because they combine salaries for elementary and high school teachers, the latter of which typically have higher wages.

The solutions used to reach higher salaries in Chandler do not work for all districts because they rely on voter support at the local level and not all communities have the resources to approve such measures.

“Not all districts can (pass overrides and bonds) and that creates disparities between communities that cannot support that type of thing,” Expect More Arizona interim President and CEO Erin Hart said.

Low pay is making it difficult for public schools in Arizona to recruit and retain teachers as some opt to leave for higher-paying states or leave the profession entirely.

Of all public-school teachers hired in Arizona in 2013, 42 percent were no longer teaching in the state by 2016. The median salary for teachers in California is $30,000 per year higher than Arizona and teachers in New Mexico and Nevada earn $10,000 to $15,000 more per year than Arizona teachers, according to Morrison Institute.

There is a consensus among several public school officials at districts across the East Valley that a commitment from the state will be necessary to meet the Progress Meter’s goals for teacher salaries.

“I think the state Legislature would need to make plans over time to approve budgets that will support that goal,” Holmes said.

Terry Locke, director of community relations at Chandler Unified School District, agreed.

“The solution is pretty simple – it involves more funding,” Locke wrote via email. “With fixed costs related to utilities, maintenance, quality support staff (needed) for various functions like custodial, nurses, school office personnel, it is difficult for Arizona schools to match the median wage when the funding level is among the lowest in the nation.”

Teacher pay is a key issue related to overall funding because it accounts for roughly 90 percent of school district budgets, Hart said.

The costs to retain district support staff is also on the rise following the passage of Proposition 206, which will incrementally raise the state’s minimum wage toward $12 an hour.

Districts will need additional money to address those rising wages along with teacher salaries, Holmes said.

“Presently, the state of Arizona only provides a small cost-of-living increase that helps to keep the current ranking in place, which is at the bottom of national rankings,” Dr. Mark Knight, assistant superintendent, academic services with Kyrene School District, said via email.

“Cost-of-living increases over the last two years are in the neighborhood of 1.3 to 1.4 percent per year and this does very little for school districts who hope to move closer to a national median wage,” Knight added.

Kyrene School District has made an effort to increase starting teacher salaries from $36,000 to $42,000 over the next three years, though it is doing so without the expectation of support from the legislature. Rather, it will make budget cuts in other areas to accommodate the pay raise.

Several school district officials from across the East Valley suggested ways to raise education funding, including a renewal of Proposition 301, which voters approved in 2000. The legislation increased state sales tax from 5 percent to 5.6 percent and the additional revenue has gone towards public education.

The tax hike is set to expire in 2021. The measure accounts for over $600 million a year in revenue for Arizona’s schools.

Tempe Elementary School District Superintendent Christine Busch noted that in order to make the education meter’s salary goals realistic, the governor and Legislature would need to allocate per-pupil funding commensurate with top-ranked states, eliminate unfunded educational mandates and restore education funding that has been reduced for districts over the last 10 years.

Hart said Arizona could also look into enacting more policy measures that can help Arizona attract and retain educators like the existing teacher student loan forgiveness program.

“Highly effective teachers are the reason for student success,” Hart said. “The more we can invest in our teachers, the more we can assure success for our students across the state.”

This article was originally published by East Valley Tribune on September 18, 2017, by Wayne Schutsky.

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