Feds Give Arizona Teachers a Raise, Bailing Out the Cheapskate State

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More than 1,100 Maricopa County educators could get a salary bump next year thanks to a $60 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The grant, secured by the Maricopa County Education Service Agency, was one of 13 awarded nationwide as part of a federal program to improve teacher recruitment, retention, and quality. Arizona's grant was the second largest, beaten out only by Louisiana's. 

Arizona ranks 48th in teacher pay among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, ahead of only North Carolina, Mississippi, and South Dakota. Statewide, the average salary in 2015 was $45,335, according to the National Education Association, compared to a national average of $58,525. (New York, which ranked No. 1, paid its teachers an average of $78,835.)

And it has been getting worse. In 2015, teacher pay in Arizona was 8 percent less than it was in 2004, according to the Arizona Office of the Auditor General. Salaries slid more than $1,000 between 2010 and 2015 alone — despite the fact that teachers, on average, now have more experience and are responsible for wrangling larger classes.

The consequence of scrimping on pay: Schools are struggling to keep teachers in the classroom.

A new Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association survey of 130 schools found up to 25 percent of teaching positions were unfilled four weeks into the 2016–2017 school year. To man even that many classrooms, the group reported, many schools were forced to hired people who don't meet standard teaching qualifications.

The federal grant will be disbursed over a five-year period, beginning next year with $4,488,326, to teachers in seven districts and charters:

  • Roosevelt Elementary School District
  • Wilson Elementary School District
  • Nadaburg Unified School District
  • Mobile Elementary School District
  • Maricopa County Regional School District
  • Incito Schools
  • Kingman Unified School District

Some of the money will be used to reward the "most effective" teachers, says Laurie King, director of learning and communication systems for the Maricopa County Education Service Agency.  Funds will also be used to fine-tune teacher evaluation.

Using money from two previous U.S. Department of Education grants, the agency has developed a database to track a range of measures, including students' state-administered standardized test scores, student growth year over year, and classroom observations, King says. The information is tallied in order to score each teacher on a scale of 1 to 500, with 500 being most effective. Teachers are then awarded money according to a sliding scale.

The grant would be enough to give every teacher in the seven districts and charters a raise, King says — but not everyone will qualify.

Any leftover funds will go to teacher-development programs.

"There are some mind-blowingly incredible teachers out there — and, well, there are some teachers who need support," says King. "It is in our best interest for them to get better."

Schools can use the data for more than just determining who gets a raise.

Administrators might take the evaluations into account when assigning teachers so that the best teachers aren't all concentrated in one neighborhood and vice versa, King notes. They could also take care when sorting children into classes: Children who have a comparatively ineffective teacher one year should be given to a stronger teacher the next.

"The idea is to extend the reach of the most effective educators and then compensate them for that," King says.

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