Editor's Note: Many readers have commented online and through letters on Sunday's guest column by local teacher Chandler Jameson, "Teacher forced to strike in a right-to-work state." Below are three responses.
I read Mr. Chandler Jameson’s op-ed on April 29th, and though I, too, regret being out of the classroom and missing the opportunity to teach and engage with our students during the ongoing #RedforEd walkout, I respectfully disagree with him that this walkout cannot have a lasting impact on tens of thousands of individual students. This impact will occur if our policymakers or voters respond to this walkout by taking action and providing solutions to our underfunded K-12 educational system.
According to a 2016-17 survey by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association, there were approximately 2,000 vacant teaching positions at the start of September 2016. Many of these vacancies were filled by unqualified or underqualified individuals, including long-term substitute teachers, and in many cases, students were simply absorbed into another classroom resulting in overcrowding.
It should also be noted that the most difficult teaching positions to fill are typically math, science, and special education. Because Arizona has consistently ranked at the bottom when it comes to teacher compensation, it is not unreasonable to suggest that there is a correlation between teacher pay in Arizona and the large number of teaching positions that remain vacant well into the school year.
Mr. Jameson argues that the Arizona Educators United (AEU) walkout will negatively impact thousands of students across Arizona. I would counter and say that if the AEU movement can educate and motivate voters to address the underfunded public school system, whether it comes in the form of a ballot initiative in November or legislation that the governor and the state legislature pass to provide more competitive pay for teachers, than the tens of thousands of students who have not had a qualified teacher in recent years for Algebra, Geometry, Chemistry, Biology, or special education, will actually benefit in the long term.
This walkout has been a long time coming, and the reason we are at this tipping point is because educators have been ignored for over a decade. We have consistently asked the policymakers in Phoenix to replace funding that was cut during the recession. But because of a series of shell game budgetary maneuvers, the legislature has cut taxes, cut school funding, and claimed they have been able to meet their constitutional obligation of funding schools. The fact is that since 2008 approximately $1 billion has been cut from the state’s education budget. There is a direct link between these cuts, Arizona teacher salaries, and the crisis that Arizona is currently experiencing with a crippling and growing teacher shortage.
Here are a handful of other sobering facts compiled by the Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy in a 2017 report on the state of education in Arizona:
• Over one-third of Arizona teachers have been in the classroom for four years or less.
• Forty-two percent of Arizona teachers hired in 2013 were no longer teaching in an Arizona public school by 2016.
• Fifty-two percent of Arizona charter school teachers hired in 2013 left within three years.
• Arizona is losing more teachers each year than it is producing from Bachelor of Education programs at its three state universities.
• Median pay for Arizona’s elementary school teachers has dropped by 11 percent since 2001. For high school teachers, the decline has been 10 percent.
• When adjusted for statewide cost-of-living, elementary school teacher pay is the lowest in the nation. High school teacher pay ranks 49th of the 50 states.
• Finding qualified teachers is difficult in specialized areas such as math, science and special education.
Why are there 2,000 teacher vacancies in Arizona? Because teacher salaries in Arizona simply are not competitive with other states and other industries. Why would someone right out of college take a job for $35,000 to teach math or science when they can instead enter the private sector, or another state or federal job and receive 30 percent more?
So, although I commend Mr. Jameson for his passion and understand his concern about committing to a cause that closes schools for a period of time and leaves students on the outside looking in, I believe he is missing the forest for the trees. By acting boldly now, perhaps we can make significant gains when it comes to funding and address the issues of understaffed classrooms, noncompetitive teacher salaries, and tens of thousands of students muddling through academic year after academic year with underqualified teachers and overcrowded classrooms.