Teacher shortages continue to be a concern for schools

By Linda Kor

Schools throughout the state have been struggling to recruit and retain teachers for a number of years and this year is seeing little if no improvement.

A study done by Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy shows that funding produced by these sources has not been enough to make Arizona competitive with other states. Despite a two percent increase in pay, teachers in Arizona have been paid 10 to 11 percent below the national average since 2001. That includes in rural areas with comparable economic circumstances throughout the country. In Arizona, elementary school teacher pay is reportedly the lowest in the nation and high school teacher pay ranks 49th among the 50 states.

While low pay is often cited as the reason recruitment and retention is difficult, the study also noted that fewer young people are pursuing teaching as a career, and that those in the field cited an increased workload and a reduction in support personnel as reasons for leaving the profession.

According to Holbrook Unified School District Superintendent Robbie Koerperich, his district has been feeling the impact of the shortage. “We have several positions open, including a fifth grade at Hulet Elementary School, and kindergarten, first grade, second grade and fourth grade positions at Indian Wells Elementary School,” he said.

“At this time we are increasing class sizes due to the shortage of qualified teachers. We have high quality staff that are doing a wonderful job with increased class size,” Dr. Koerperich said. Class sizes are approaching 25 to 30 students at the elementary level in the district, which he noted is not abnormal for typical classrooms throughout the state.

“HUSD has always made small class sizes a priority and we want to maintain that priority; however, with the shortage of qualified teachers we are making adjustments as needed,” he added.

According to Joseph City School Unified District Superintendent Bryan Fields, small districts such as his don’t have a large shortage, but there remain challenges. “It appears that rural schools in general have been seeing less applicants. At JCUSD we have had to assist potential teaching applicants with alternative certification or emergency certification in order to fill our positions,” he said. “We are fortunate to not currently have any long-term substitute teachers covering positions.”

According to Fields, the content areas that appear to have the greatest shortage are science and math.  “The shortage of ‘appropriately certified’ teaching applicants can be seen across the board, even at the elementary level, which has traditionally had more applicants than the secondary content specific areas,” he said.

Winslow Unified School District was able to fill all but one of its positions, a sixth grade teaching slot.

The challenges are evident in the Morrison Institute Report, where it shows that 42 percent of Arizona teachers hired in 2013 were no longer teaching in an Arizona public school by 2016 and 52 percent of Arizona charter school teachers hired in 2013 left within three years. According to the Arizona Department of Education, a surprising 22 percent of the teachers hired in Arizona between 2013 and 2015 were not teaching in Arizona after just one year.

According to the report, Arizona is losing more teachers each year than it is producing from bachelor of education programs at its three state universities. More than one-quarter of the 8,344 openings for teaching jobs in Arizona for the 2016-17 school year were vacant as of Nov. 28, 2016.

Public schools are funded primarily through property taxes and Proposition 301, which provides a six-tenths of a cent per dollar sales tax for education. In rural areas such as Navajo County, a number of schools rely heavily on equalization funding from the state, since the property tax base is lower and so many students come from the reservations where there is no property tax collected. Funds are also obtained through federally funded programs and competitive grants.