Who Wants to Teach in Arizona?

06/30/2015 01:26 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2016

We expect teachers to be smart--certainly smart enough to graduate with a good degree, smart enough to know their subject(s) in depth, smart enough to inspire a whole range of students, smart enough to deal with students' parents and smart enough to manage their own life well.

So imagine a smart, young teacher checking out job prospects and weighing the pros and cons of working in Arizona. The great weather, the gorgeous scenery, a whole host of outdoor activities and that special Southwest vibe all give Arizona great lifestyle appeal. But life should be about more than leisure time, especially for professionals entrusted with teaching our nation's students. So as a tech-savvy millennial with a pile of student debt, that smart, young teacher goes online to see how the Grand Canyon State stacks up in the nitty-gritty of grown-up life.

First stop is WalletHub, which claims to "help you make smarter financial decisions." Scanning its Best and Worst States for Teachers for 2014, it takes a while to find Arizona. It doesn't rank at the absolute bottom overall (job security helps), but at 46th out of 51 the difference is academic, no pun intended. On salary rankings (adjusted for cost of living), it's 48th, for pupil/teacher ratio it's 49th, and for public school spending it's 50th. Just-released U.S. Census Bureau data shows that Arizona dropped from a rank of 39 (out of 50) in state funding per pupil to dead last over two decades.

In fairness, Gov. Doug Ducey is working to reverse that, and he has made some innovative proposals in recent weeks. Also worth noting: Arizona is fighting a tough battle in regard to its demographics. Its population growth has been third highest in the country since 1992; as part of that growth, however, it is ranked No. 9 in the U.S. in increase of residents under age 18, No. 49 in the growth of its tax base of 18- to 64-year-olds, and back up to No. 13 in the rise in those over 64 -- the people with an increased demand for state resources.

To sum up, compared with most other states, this is the prospect facing a teacher in Arizona: relatively bigger classes with fewer resources for less take-home pay.

Seeing these figures, knowing that so many teachers are spending hundreds of their own scant dollars on their classrooms, and reading articles like the recent one in the New York Times that talks of teachers doubling up on duties makes me wonder how the state manages to attract and retain any teachers at all, let alone smart ones. Somehow it does, though, or at least it has up until recently.

What's more, Arizona's teachers manage to achieve respectable results. In U.S. News and World Report's Best High Schools rankings for 2015, Arizona ranked 26th, just behind Utah (25th) and comfortably ahead of New Mexico (36th). But neighboring Colorado tied for 16th, Nevada tied for 13th and California placed second.

As a practical matter, none of this should matter to me. I'm one of the many who have relocated to Arizona part-time. My family has three members associated with or enrolled at the University of Arizona, so they're beyond being directly affected by the dire K-12 education situation, but we are hit by the state's vast higher-education cuts. It still matters intensely to me, though; I owe a huge debt of gratitude to teachers, and I value smart people and want to live in a state that values the teachers who help kids grow up smart.

Today, Arizona risks short-changing its youngsters and jeopardizing its long-term viability as a place where people stay rather than pass through. As a homeowner and an employer with a long-term stake in the state -- my company has opened a new office in Phoenix -- the teacher meltdown worries me a lot. I was concerned that other Arizonans weren't concerned, so as executive chair of Tucson Values Teachers, I worked with the board to commission a survey to check out perceptions.

In a community survey of 442 Tucsonans (random and representative of the whole community), we asked respondents to rate the importance of some key local issues. Improving schools was important for 68 percent (including "very important" for 40 percent), and so, coincidentally, was more jobs. (Road and street repair scored highest at 75 percent, including "very important" for 51 percent.) When focus is put on more jobs, then the employment situation in our schools changes, meaning better teachers and better schools. And what does that mean? A better economy. (Which would probably give us more money to fix more roads.)

According to a report from the Arizona Department of Education, almost two-thirds of districts (62 percent) reporting to an Arizona School Administrators survey had positions that needed filling. One-quarter of the state's educational workforce is eligible for retirement before 2017. What sort of teachers will be attracted by a state that ranks so low on virtually every factor that affects quality of professional life? It turns out that for some savvy teachers, there's an upside to a low ranking. As one commenter on WalletHub put it, it's easy for a newbie teacher to get a job and teaching experience: "I plan on putting my time in here and then moving up when something else, in a more desirable location, becomes available."

Arizona might not suffer the hurricanes that batter the East Coast or the twisters that hit the Midwest, but it doesn't take a meteorologist to spot a perfect storm brewing for education in our state. Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, might think it's already here; he told CBS 5 in Phoenix in response to a regional survey of teacher openings: "We think this is the largest documented teacher shortage that Arizona has faced in decades."

As proposals to fund schools get reviewed, we must galvanize around issues affecting teachers to make sure they understand that the community stands with them. With the governor's latest initiatives, we have started a new day (gone back to school, if you will) in which state government recognizes that the well is dry and we are dehydrating those who serve us.

By elevating this to a national discussion, as The New York Times did, we run the risk of scaring off great teachers--but we also know that with national coverage comes constructive change. Optimally, that change would come from government and private sectors forging ahead together to retain Arizona's good teachers and recruit new ones who can contribute to this great extended community.

Every collaboration and effort makes a small difference. Tucson Values Teachers (TVT) is working to address the many challenges with tangible ideas and is building the energy to follow through on them. Here are just three of our successful initiatives:

  • Teachers in Industry: One of the nation's leading STEM education programs, this is a partnership of the University of Arizona College of Education, TVT, Southern Arizona Leadership Council, 40-plus industry partners, and Arizona school districts, schools and teachers. Through Teachers in Industry, teachers undertake paid summer work in Arizona businesses and industries combined with intensive coursework leading to either professional development credits or a master's degree focused on STEM education.
  • Tucson Supplies Teachers: TVT's community-wide supply drive has raised more than $663,000 in classroom supplies since its inception in 2009.
  • National Teacher Appreciation Week: TVT partnered with Tucson Unified School District on its inaugural Celebration of the Stars, an event honoring exceptional school leadership.

With our unique team of advocates dedicated to addressing the many K-12 issues throughout Arizona, Tucson Values Teachers--not just an organization but also a battle cry--is poised to accomplish change.