TUCSON, Ariz. — Teachers work two jobs so they can buy boats and other luxury items, Arizona’s House Majority Leader Republican John Allen said recently.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Here in Tucson, K-12 teachers get starting annual salaries in the $30,000 to $35,000 range, the same starting wage as city bus drivers, and a wage far below that of most other professions requiring a bachelor’s degree and professional licensing.
Arizona ranks 50th in the United States in elementary school teacher salaries adjusted for cost of living, with an average salary of about $42,560, only three-quarters of what teachers earn in other parts of the country.
In wages adjusted for inflation, Arizona elementary school teachers are making 11 percent less now than they were in 2001. Patterns for middle and high school teachers are similar. According the 2017 Living Wage Calculator out of MIT, a family of three to four individuals necessitates a minimum annual salary of $46,000. Teachers are taking second jobs to cover their basic living expenses, not to “enjoy the finer things in life.”
Given these low wages, it’s no surprise that the first bit of advice many new teachers receive is to marry a doctor or a lawyer.
Both this advice, to marry for security, and the extremely low salary offered in a field where 76 percent of teachers are female, demands attention in relation to gender-based inequities and social justice.
Because 19 percent of Arizona families have a female head of household, these low salaries contribute to a large number of children in our state living at or near poverty levels.
Why don’t we hear more outcry, particularly in places like Arizona where there is an acute teacher shortage and where Gov. Doug Ducey is responding to this teacher shortage by signing a bill that de-professionalizes teaching, lowering standards for teacher certification?
Doesn’t he get it? The problem isn’t that people can’t meet the standards already in place (standards necessary to ensure that the most intelligent, skilled and caring individuals work with our kids). The problem is that people don’t want to go into a profession that requires they accept a poverty wage.
This is not an abstract exercise in feminist principles, but a daily battle not only for the women and men who have chosen teaching as their profession, but for their students and our communities more broadly.
Teacher well-being translates into student well-being. If we paid teachers in Arizona what we pay lawyers, architects, IT professionals, engineers, CEOs, doctors or other highly respected, highly compensated professionals, our teachers wouldn’t have to take second jobs and might have more energy, creativity and time to invest in our community’s children.
We might not lose one out of two teachers within the first five years of their fledgling careers.
And, according to this same report by the National Center for Education Statistics (U.S. Department of Education), this appalling attrition rate is directly influenced by starting salaries, and is even higher among teachers of color.
It’s certainly one of the reasons that, two and a half years ago, I left teaching to become a coordinator for refugee K-12 education in Tucson to support and train classroom teachers, to help refugee parents better understand and become advocates for their children within the U.S. school system, and to support the learning, achievement and integration of refugee and immigrant students through after-school programming.
Raising teacher salaries is not the only step required to attract the best and brightest to the teaching profession; there are larger structural issues and concerns regarding working conditions to be addressed. But, it is a critical first step toward bringing highly qualified, motivated and diverse individuals into our classrooms.
What will it take? A slight increase in property taxes? We can do that. Increase the investment by the Arizona legislature in public schools? There is support for public financing of education. Arizonans rated education as the most important issue in our state and approved Proposition 123 to increase education funding. An endowment from a bold philanthropist? We’ll accept such infusions of resources and hope. Teachers standing up for their rights and not letting themselves be coopted by their love of their students, our children? We have the power for such action.
We must remember that teaching is absolutely not charity work. It’s a calling. It’s a profession. It’s the heart of our democracy and the hope of our future.
Patricia MacCorquodale, a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona and a Tucson Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project, contributed to this article.
Julie Kasper is a National Board Certified Teacher who works with and for K-12 refugee students and English Language Learners in Tucson, and is a Tucson Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.