This week in the New York Times, Fernando Santos and Motoko Rich took a look at the continuing teacher shortage in Arizona, where leaders continue to demonstrate that they understand neither education nor the free market forces that they claim to love.
Arizona's history with reformster nonsense goes way back. Bill McCallum was a professor at the University of Arizona back when he became one of the co-authors of the Common Core. Arizona has long camped out at the bottom of most education lists-- spending, test results, you name it, they've sucked at it. When reformy governor Jan Brewer backed Tea Party fave Doug Ducey all the way to the capital, that was not good news for education.
Ducey brought in reformsters Paul Pastorek, obliterator-in-chief of New Orleans schools, and Joel Klein, who never met a public school that he didn't want to shut down. Pastorek and Klein showed up to help promote the idea of a charter-choice non-public school system where children carrying tax dollars in their backpacks travel from school to school begging to be admitted. At that same event, Ducey (previous job: CEO of Cold Stone Creamery) declared a need for more positive view of Arizona:
"I believe that too many have fallen into a doom-and-gloom cycle where
everything is wrong, where the cynic is winning, telling others that
nothing is right," Ducey said. "I say it's time we shed an inferiority
complex inside this state."
It's funny-- I would think that an acolyte of Competition and Free Market Forces would recognize that a good way to shed an inferiority complex would be to take steps to stop being inferior.
That has not always been the Arizona way. A year ago their legislature was seriously discussing a bill to shut educators up, barring them from "distributing electronic materials to influence the outcome of an
election or to advocate support for or opposition to pending or proposed
legislation." (It was shouted down in the 11th hour.) Arizona has also led the country in anti-Hispanic legislation, banning Mexican-American studies from the classroom.
Through all of this, Arizona has continued to have a teacher problem.
Last fall, Arizona schools were trying to fill teaching positions by recruiting in the Philipines. An Arizona Department of Education task force on teacher retention and recruitment issued a report in January of this year, and the picture was not pretty. Two years ago Arizona schools began the year with around a thousand unfilled teaching positions (out of a complete teaching force of a bit over 60,000). Going forward, things just look worse, with the impending retirement of up to a quarter of the current teaching force.
The report also shows the level of experience plummeting. In 1987-88, the most common experience level for teachers was 15 years. In 2011-12, it was five years. In 2013-14, 24% of first year teachers and 20% of second year teachers left their jobs "and were not reported as teaching in Arizona." In other words, just under a quarter of Arizona's newest teachers either left teaching or Arizona.
There are not too many mysteries about why Arizona cannot hold onto a complete teaching force. For starters, if you live anywhere else, you may think you know what low spending on schools looks like. But take a guess at what Arizona's per-pupil spending is, according to most recent reports--
That puts Arizona dead last in the US. So teachers in Arizona get bupkus in financial resources for meeting the needs of their students.
Can't they just fill in the gap out of their own pockets, like other teachers all across America? I'm sure they'd like to, and I'll bet many do-- but the pockets of an Arizona teacher do not run very deep. The report says that the average starting salary is $31,874. Keep in mind-- that's an average, which means that all sorts of folks are starting out a even less than that. The report notes that is an increase of 20% over 2003 starting salaries, meaning that teaching has grown far slower than "other degreed professions."
In the NYT article, we meet John-David Bowman, the 2015 Arizona Teacher of the Year. He hasn't had a raise since 2008. If he retires in twenty years, he'll do so with a salary under $50K.
Unsurprisingly, many Arizona school districts have frozen or cut spending. As the visit of Pastorek and Klein would suggest, Arizona has for years been pursuing a policy of cutting state spending, which leaves three options for local districts: A) raise local taxes to make up difference, B) let school spiral downward and be declared a distressed failure, or C) all of the above.
That man-made disaster suits some folks just fine. Among Arizona's many low, low grades in education, there is one high mark. The Center for Education Reform, a group devoted to pushing charters anywhere and everywhere, gave Arizona one of a handful of A's for being a great state for charters. The NYT article includes a quote from a parent who has reluctantly gone charter rather than send her small children into a classroom of forty students.
Protection for teachers? Well, the Fordham Institute issued a report back in 2012 ranking state teacher unions for power an influence in their states, and there we find Arizona dead last on yet another list. Arizona is a right to work state, with no collective bargaining rights. Tenure ("continuing status") still exists, but low test scores can be a reason to fire "tenured" teachers. And when furloughs are called for, districts may not consider seniority as a factor. (By which I don't mean "it might not happen" but rather "they aren't allowed to do it")
How bad is the attitude about education in Arizona? That same study of retention and recruitment includes recommendations for improving the situation. It includes recommendations for policymakers including:
* Elevate positive reinforcement for the role our educators play in ensuring success for all students
* Publicly acknowledge the value of the teaching profession and the critical need for effective teachers in all Arizona classrooms
* Help to improve the respect afforded educators
* Publicly acknowledge the value of the teaching profession
Let those sink in. The Arizona Department of Education thought these were things that policymakers needed to be told, implying that these are things policymakers didn't already know (after all, campaign consultants don't tell their candidates "Kiss babies. Say nice things about America. Remember to keep breathing.") It is bad enough in Arizona that "show teachers respect" qualifies as bold new policy advice.
So. Low pay, poor workplace resources, no job security, difficult work conditions, and no respect from state leaders. How could Arizona possibly have a teacher shortage?
You would think free market conservatives could figure this one out. If I walk into Cold Stone Creamery and say, "Give me a four scoop hot chocolate sundae with crushed nuts and strawberries, and I want to stand on that side of the counter and poke you in the nose while you make it. I'll pay you a quarter" I am not going to get my wish. If you want to purchase goods and/or services, and people won't sell them to you under the conditions you set, you have to up your offer. This is not rocket science. The invisible hand does not set prices based on what we'd like to pay; otherwise, we would all buy new cars for $1.50. But free marketeers always seem to want to bite the invisible hand that feeds them when it says that they have to fork over real money to pay for labor and materials.
The solution to Arizona's teacher shortage is neither mysterious or complicated. Pay a living wage. Take care of your schools properly. Provide the resources needed to do the job. Treat your teachers, both by word and by policy, with respect.
Ducey may have caught on, at least a little. Last Thursday he announced a plan to pump an additional $2 billion into schools. This will be financed by dipping into Arizona's state land trust permanent fund, a fund that gains money from sale of land and resources of the land held in trust by the state; currently that fund is enjoying success from stock market investments. So, yeah-- selling off publicly held resources and investing the money in the market. There's no way this could end badly.
It is tossing a bone to public schools. (Universities, which continue to take heavy hits, get no such bone.) It was greeted with "cautious optimism." But for now, I would not put Arizona on my list of Great Places To Pursue a Teaching Career. Not until Arizona policymakers indicate they have found stopped wandering in the desert and have finally located a clue.