New numbers from the Morrison Institute at ASU show Arizona elementary teachers are merely second-to-last nationwide in pay.EXPAND
New numbers from the Morrison Institute at ASU show Arizona elementary teachers are merely second-to-last nationwide in pay.
Joseph Flaherty

Report: Arizona Soars to 49th in Elementary Teacher Pay – For Now

Arizona elementary teachers are no longer the worst-compensated in the country, researchers say.

We're now second-to-last behind Oklahoma, but maybe not for long — teachers there are on the picket lines.

New teacher pay numbers from the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University indicate that the median teacher pay in Arizona inched up slightly between 2016 and 2017. Elementary teacher pay increased around 4.7 percent, but Arizona's way behind neighboring states. When adjusted for cost-of-living, elementary teacher pay in Arizona ranks 49th nationwide.

Arizona's median high-school teacher pay also moved up one spot, to 48th. Arizona elementary teachers earn a median wage of $44,990 and high school teachers earn $48,306, the institute says.

Before you start to cheer, keep in mind that our new ranking might not last very long. Oklahoma's legislature recently passed a bill to give teachers a $6,000 raise. The statewide school walkout has stretched into its fourth day. If the successful teacher strike in West Virginia last month is any indication, Oklahoma's lawmakers might pass an even bigger pay raise for teachers.

The advocacy group Expect More Arizona, which argues that Arizona should invest more dollars in education, released the updated statistics from the Morrison Institute on Thursday.

Dan Hunting, senior policy analyst at the Morrison Institute, said that the pay figures culled from the Bureau of Labor Statistics are solid. But he cautioned against interpreting the new numbers to say that Arizona teachers received a raise in 2016-17. Median pay is trending upward, Hunting said, but the new figure "doesn’t necessarily reflect that teachers are getting paid more."

Because the numbers are based on the BLS employer survey, there is a slight gray area. Plus, the movement of teachers in and out of classrooms statewide makes it hard to say definitively where teacher pay stands. If Arizona lost a significant number of first-year teachers, that could inflate the median pay figure because higher-paid senior teachers would be over-represented in the survey.

"Teachers appear to be making somewhat more," Hunting said. "How much more is a matter of some conjecture."

Education dollars from Proposition 123 and local district bonds and overrides may have contributed, Hunting said.

The grassroots drive for better teacher pay exploded in Arizona schools last month after the teacher strike in West Virginia. The #RedForEd movement coalesced around the idea that Arizona teachers should organize like the West Virginia teachers in order to win a living wage. Now known as Arizona Educators United, the #RedForEd teachers have staged several actions since March.

They formally announced their demands at the Capitol last Wednesday in a rally that drew thousands of educators dressed in red.

This week, Arizona Educators United leaders said they're willing to set a date for a statewide school walkout once they gauge support for such a move. They want a 20 percent pay increase before the legislative session ends later this month.

If anything, the new median teacher pay figures show just how far Arizona has to go to match neighboring states. Expect More Arizona's meter of median elementary teacher pay shows Arizona lagging way behind other Western states like Colorado (45th), Utah (29th) and New Mexico (19th).

Christine Thompson, the president and CEO of Expect More, described the new figures as a step in the right direction, but said that her organization's goal is to have Arizona reach the national median for teacher pay. It will take long-term solutions, she said.

"Obviously, there’s an incredibly long way to go," Thompson said.

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