Tucson’s nine major school districts have been busy the last couple months, hiring teachers for the next school year. They have also been busy trying to fill a collective 100 or so teacher vacancies that still exist well into the current school year.
District leaders and policy experts attribute the state’s crisis-level teacher shortage to a number of factors, with Arizona’s failure to adequately fund public education being at the top of the list.
Throwing money at the problem, in the case of public education, isn’t a shot in the dark, according to Jason Freed, the leader of the organization representing educators at Tucson’s largest public school district.
It is absolutely necessary, Freed said, if Arizona ever wants to get out of the many educational quagmires it has dug itself into — one of the most pressing being the teacher shortage the state has been facing for years.
The shortage is a national crisis, but Arizona — one of the worst-funded states in the country, as far as public education goes — has been feeling the negative implications of teacher vacancies more acutely than most, Tucson-area school leaders and education researchers say.
At a local level, Tucson Unified, Tucson’s largest school district, and Sunnyside, the second-largest district, had the most teacher vacancies as of the second week of March. TUSD had 48 and Sunnyside 46, according to data the Arizona Daily Star obtained through a public records request.
Sahuarita had nine vacancies, while Catalina Foothills had 2.5 — two full-time teachers and one part-time — and Marana had two. Amphitheater had four. Vail, Tanque Verde and Flowing Wells were the only districts reported having one unfilled teacher vacancy for the current school year.
“A BAIT-AND-SWITCH GAME”
These nine districts, like the other 660 or so school districts throughout Arizona, have been left to deal with the impacts of the teacher shortage without much financial support from the state, according to Kevin Henry, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona’s College of Education.
At the core of the shortage is the issue of teacher pay, Henry said, but the money problems go deeper than salaries alone.
Until the Arizona Legislature agrees to beef up public education funding in all aspects, from teacher pay to funding set aside for fixing air conditioners and buying textbooks, districts will continue to struggle recruiting and retaining certified teachers.
“This makes it even more difficult for teachers to do their jobs well when they don’t have the resources to do so,” Henry said.
New and veteran teachers alike are leaving the field for higher-paying, lower-stress, more widely “respected” jobs, and prospective teachers are choosing to avoid the profession for the same reasons, Henry said.
The pool of in-state college students willing to stay and teach in Arizona after graduating is dwindling because of Arizona’s reputation for underfunding education, according to Sahuarita School District Superintendent Manny Valenzuela.
“Money is not everything, but it’s something,” Valenzuela said. “We’re in an era where the issues we face with teacher retention are not all that surprising. It’s really about supply and demand.”
Teachers are also throwing in the towel because of increased regulations surrounding what they can teach and how they can teach it, due to state accountability standards that judge schools mostly by how well their students perform on standardized tests, Henry said.
These accountability regulations police teachers’ ability to teach what they have been taught is best, and instead teach with a one-size-fits-all, test-focused approach. This drains teachers and can influence them to leave the field, Henry said.
With fewer certified teachers in the classroom, student achievement suffers. And the neediest students — students of color, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and those with disabilities — struggle with achievement the most, because of the lack of teacher guidance, Henry said.
“When we have these high levels of turnovers or vacancies in school districts, the children that are most impacted are … those students that are in most need of support,” Henry said.
This reality directly contradicts Arizona’s historical focus on improving student achievement through test-based school accountability practices, like the A-F grading system, he added.
“It’s a bait-and-switch game, where we say that we care about student accountability, where we say that we are interested in students’ test scores,” Henry said. “But we don’t provide them with the teachers who have the pedagogical expertise or the content knowledge to be successful in their endeavors to teach students.”
Filling vacant positions with well-qualified, certified teachers in Arizona’s education funding reality is no easy task for school districts. Figuring out how to retain the teachers they do manage to recruit is also a struggle.
Districts tend to fill vacant positions with long-term substitutes, emergency-certified teachers or teaching interns through “alternate-pathway” programs. While long-term substitutes and emergency-certified teachers may have prior teaching experience, that isn’t always a guarantee.
The reason districts can fill classrooms with these non-traditionally certified or uncertified teachers is because Arizona had to relax its teaching standards in response to the spike in vacancies, according to Amphitheater Public Schools Superintendent Todd Jaeger.
“So that teachers who have no training as teachers whatsoever can become teachers immediately,” Jaeger said.
While emergency certification and alternate pathways have allowed districts to put instructors in front of students, despite the teacher shortage, they are “Band-Aid fixes,” Jaeger said.
They won’t remedy the root cause of the shortage: a lack of funding for all aspects of public education, as UA’s Henry explained.
“When the teachers marched last year, they didn’t say it was just about their compensation,” Jaeger said. “They did talk about, ‘We need air conditioning, we need roofs, we need textbooks, we need computers.’ And so it is a much broader issue than people think — it’s not just about teacher compensation.”
Gov. Doug Ducey promised to raise Arizona teacher salaries 20 percent by 2020 after the #RedForEd teacher walkouts last year. And earlier this year, he proposed restoring $68 million of the $116 million he cut in capital funding when he took office in 2015.
But these funding infusions aren’t enough to create a lasting fix to the shortage issue, Henry said, because educational funding hasn’t been restored to pre-recession levels.
To make up for funding shortfalls, school districts have to get creative in their recruitment and retention practices, school officials say.
AN UPHILL BATTLE
The districts, regardless of how many vacancies they have, are utilizing similar tactics to tackle the teacher shortage, according to representatives who spoke with the Arizona Daily Star.
Every local district, from TUSD to Tanque Verde, has beefed up its recruiting practices and started seeking out new teachers earlier on.
Now, most start hiring for the next school year in February of the current school year and don’t stop unless they fill all vacancies. They host multiple job fairs between February and the next school year to reach the largest pool of potential candidates possible.
Local districts have also built partnerships with the UA, Pima Community College and other state universities in hopes of creating a pipeline of teachers to their schools when those students graduate.
These partnerships take many forms, with one of the most popular being “grow-your-own” programs. TUSD, Amphitheater, Marana, Flowing Wells, Catalina Foothills, Vail and Sahuarita all offer an iteration of grow-your-own programs.
In these programs, undergraduates agree to teach at a given school district for a certain number of years after graduating if a college or university pays them a stipend or scholarship. Students also complete their student teaching requirements at that school, during their undergraduate studies.
“The idea is to incentivize people to strengthen their connectedness to our community … and hopefully come back and teach in our school district,” said Sahuarita’s Valenzuela.
Vail started an alternative pathways program for teaching interns this year, according to Jena Privette, the district’s assistant human-resources director.
In alternate pathways programs, individuals who have at least a bachelor’s degree can study to become a certified teacher while simultaneously teaching in the classroom as an intern.
“We try to be creative,” Privette said of Vail’s teacher recruitment and retention tactics. “We try to work with people who are excited about working in the classroom.”
WEATHERING THE STORM
Many district leaders told the Star they don’t see an end in sight for the shortage unless the state and society make some adjustments to how they view and treat public education.
First, people should understand the shortage is a critical issue from the top to the bottom in Arizona’s educational landscape, according to Tanque Verde Superintendent Scott Hagerman.
“The number of students in university programs (for teaching) continuously goes down,” Hagerman said. “There’s not a lot of candidates around.”
Amphi’s Jaeger mirrored Hagerman’s concerns. If the state doesn’t begin to improve teacher pay and education funding at large, the teacher force will continue to dwindle from the university level up.
Jaeger gave an example to illustrate the issue. A couple years ago, the UA College of Education only had nine students graduate with an emphasis in high school math — one of the most difficult teaching positions to fill because of the expertise and training it requires, he said.
“That is just — think about that. Nine teachers,” Jaeger said. “We have five vacancies in math next year at one high school already alone. Just think about what a clamoring there is for hiring them.”
It is also important to acknowledge, understand and respect the critical role teachers play in shaping our society, the UA’s Henry said.
That could be a gesture as small as thanking your child’s teacher to calling your state legislator about the state of educational funding in Arizona, according to Janet Rico Uhrig, the executive director of human resources at TUSD.
“It’s about making sure that society has value in the work that our teachers do daily,” Rico Uhrig said.
Freed, president of the Tucson Education Association, which represents TUSD teachers, said we should also acknowledge the educators who continue to weather the storm here in Arizona despite low salaries, funding and, at times, morale.
“This is my home state. So I’m going to continue to be part of this solution, but just know that unfortunately, one splash of money is not going to fix this problem,” Freed said.