How to keep Arizona teachers on the job? Report says to pay them more and lessen their workloads.
By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- A new Arizona report Tuesday on how to keep teachers in the classroom came up with a fair number of the expected results: Raise salaries, cut workload and reduce stress.
And most of the recommendations have been heard for years.
But Gov. Katie Hobbs who convened the task force that came up with the suggestions, insisted that the outcome will be different this time and this won't be just another report that winds up on the shelf.
"We're putting the administration behind what we see as the issues,'' she told Capitol Media Services.
And Hobbs sniffed at the idea that has been promised by governors who have come before her.
"They haven't prioritized this,'' she said.
One thing that has changed is that even the Republicans who control the Legislature have acknowledged that salaries, the top issue cited by teachers who leave the profession, have to be addressed, trotting out their own plan to boost pay by $4,000 across the board. And Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said he was pleased by what he sees in the report and recommendations.
"I'm very excited and committed to not doing the same old thing,'' he said. And Bennett knows what's been done in the past, having served as president of the state Board of Education before being elected the first time to the Senate in 1998 where he was president for two years.
But what it's going to require is all parties to decide what they are going to do differently than they have in the past to get different results going forward.
"We've been doing yesterday for 20, 30 years,'' Bennett said. "And we're getting the same results.''
What it's also going to require, he said, is putting aside some political bickering.
Consider, he said, that $4,000 plan to improve teacher pay. While the details haven't been released, it's based on the idea of using dollars from the state land trust which until now have gone to boost overall education funding to instead earmark them for salaries.
"Unfortunately, some of the response was 'It's a shell game' or 'It's a whatever,' '' Bennett said. "Why not be a little more of good faith and have people come to the table and say, 'Well, yes, let's figure out how to raise teacher salaries by $4,000.' ''
What that would do, he said, is raise teacher pay from below the national average to a bit above it.
"And that would position us better to attract teachers,'' Bennett said.
Hobbs, a Democrat, pronounced herself "optimistic'' that the recommendations will actually gain traction at the Republican-controlled Legislature.
"None of these proposals should be politicized,'' the governor said.
Still, it may be hard to keep the politics out of it.
Rep. Judy Schwiebert, D-Phoenix, pointed out she sponsored legislation last session to have the state raise teacher salaries to the national median. It also would have added $4 an hour to the pay of school counselors and librarians.
It was assigned to the House Education Committee but never got a hearing. Schwiebert took a swat at Republican lawmakers in sidelining her plan even as they pursue expensive programs they favor.
"It would have cost $1.2 billion, which, as it turns out, is the same amount that we're spending on the Empowerment Scholarship Account voucher program that we're not getting any information about as far as are vouchers doing the job for us,'' she said.
Schwiebert isn't alone. Hobbs continues to argue that the program needs to be scaled back.
But any mention of moving money away from universal vouchers has proven to bring talks to a halt.
Marisol Garcia, president of the Arizona Education Association and a member of the task force, said what may help force legislative action this time is the report itself which was based on interviews with nearly 7,800 current educators and more than 700 who had quit.
Of those still working, nearly 70% said they had considered quitting in the past 12 months.
What makes all of that relevant is that in the 2021-2022 school year, 58% of Arizona schools struggled or entirely failed to fill teacher vacancies on campus. And as of this year, 18% of Arizona educators said they actually were planning to leave the profession, compared with 8% nationally.
All that is what Hobbs said in January led her to form the task force.
"The reality is we don’t have an educator shortage, what we have is a retention crisis,'' she said at the time. "There are too many amazing professionals who had to leave a career they love because of the uncompetitive salaries, onerous policies, and unfunded mandates that rob educators of the joy of teaching."
And that turnover comes with a cost to students.
The report cites studies that teacher effectiveness continues to steadily increase until the 12th year, with the largest gains in student achievement occurring during a teacher's first five years in the classroom.
But in Arizona, a third of all teachers have four years or less experience, with fewer than half having 10 or more years in the classroom.
"I'm hoping that, institutionally, bringing these numbers forward and giving the legislators actual data as well as people showing up and talking to them that there could be a chance for this to actually move through the Legislature,'' Garcia said.
Bennett noted that the task force found there are other ways to put more cash into the pockets of teachers. One of those is by taking less out of their checks in the first place.
"Contributions to healthcare plans can range widely across the state and depend on the health plan that each school district or charter school chooses,'' the report says. "Family and dependent coverage can be up to five times the contribution required for individual employees and was cited frequently by educators as a concern.''
That, said Bennett, presents an opportunity for legislative intervention.
"Maybe there's some way to say if a district or a charter school employs you as a full-time teacher, we're going to pool all of those people into one health insurance program,'' he said, a move that could save teachers thousands of dollars a year.
There are other non-cash options.
One recommendation asks the governor to support policies that provide educators and school personnel with 12 weeks of paid parental leave for childbirth, adoption or fostering.
That idea is not foreign to Hobbs. Earlier this year she directed the state Department of Administration to provide state workers with up to 12 weeks off for any new baby in the house during a 12-month period.
Hobbs had the authority to order that for state workers by executive order. But extending that benefit to employees of schools would require either that districts offer it themselves or legislative action -- and, potentially, financial assistance.
Still, the report finds that money, while at the top of the concerns of educators, is only part of the problem.
"Eighty percent of former educators cited 'feeling burned out' and 73% cited 'unable to have a healthy work-life balance' as the top factors contributing to their decision to leave the classroom,'' the task force said.
The report also cites a Gallup poll which says that those working in K-12 education report the highest rate of physical and mental stress of all U.S. professions.
"These high rates are caused by many factors, including workload, student behavior, and lack of administrative support,'' according to the task force.
The solution to that, the report says, includes decreasing class size or student load and ensuring that teachers have adequate preparation time. But this, like many of the other recommendations, comes at a cost which was not computed in the study.
One concrete action suggested by the report that Hobbs took Tuesday was to put $2 million of COVID-relief funds under her control into an existing "induction'' program that provides a structured package of support including regular mentoring, feedback and time for collaborative planning with colleagues.
Hobbs praised the panel for its work.
"I think your recommendations demonstrate a clear understanding of the issues and what's needed to make meaningful change in the system,'' she said.
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