Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper recently ruled that Arizona lawmakers must come up with $300 million immediately, and potentially $2.9 billion in the future, to reimburse schools for the funds the lawmakers withheld illegally.
If and when the Legislature starts repaying school districts, the top priority must be raising teacher salaries. Throughout Tucson, for example, teachers have had their wages frozen or even decreased for the past 10-plus years. Having worked as a Tucson teacher for more than 40 years, I know numerous teachers with master’s degrees who have worked 12 or more years and are yet to make $40,000. I even know of some single-parent teachers who receive food stamps because their teaching salaries are inadequate.
With teacher salaries being so low, local and regional districts are fighting over the few qualified math and science teachers remaining in the field. Just recently, the Tucson Unified School District lost two math teachers at the same school, one going to a higher paying job in Marana and another leaving Arizona for much higher wages.
In fact, there are not enough math and science teachers to fill all the positions in Tucson, not to mention the many special-education jobs that are constantly available. For a change, local districts are advertising openings in many fields in the want ads of this newspaper. It’s been awhile since districts have had to advertise openings for English and Spanish teachers, among the many other positions listed.
Our public schools educate a significant number of our minority population locally and nationally. TUSD and similar districts would like to see more teachers from these minorities serve as role models and mentors to the students.
However, with the high cost of education and the low wages offered by public schools, who can afford to teach and pay college loans? Schools throughout the country are offering incentives for minorities to teach, but if you’re looking at a job that doesn’t even offer you $40,000 after 15 years, you’re looking elsewhere.
Young, idealistic teachers usually figure this out soon enough, which is the key reason approximately 80 percent of them leave within five years. Other reasons include having to attend mandatory (often mind-numbing and redundant) professional development training and being subjected to increased disrespect for the profession shown to teachers by many administrators and parents.
Walk into a few public schools and you will notice that there are very few young men in the classrooms. Let’s be honest — most men still look at themselves as the primary wage-earner of a family and perceive teacher salaries as a second-income job. If you’re bright and ambitious, a starting salary of $32,000 to $33,000 with yearly freezes isn’t going to cut it.
In Arizona there is no tenure, no seniority, and until the Legislature decides to follow the law, no cost-of-living increases. Other states have also thrown these out the window, while other states are trying to. Tenure and seniority are soon to be a moot point, anyway. There will not be enough new teachers to be covered by either of these. Currently, there are hundreds of teaching vacancies in the Tucson area less than two weeks before schools open.
Arizona now has the possibility of doing one thing right in terms of public education. The Legislature must ante up its debt to the schools, and schools must decide what to do with the funds. The money needs to be allocated first to reimbursing the teachers for all of their withheld cost-of-living wages. Our state cannot offer a quality education to its citizens if it cannot pay its teachers enough to survive economically.