Originally Published: September 6, 2018 7:41 p.m.
PHOENIX — Nearly one in four teaching vacancies that school districts had this year remain unfilled four weeks into the academic year.
The new report by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association found that the 178 school districts and charter schools, which responded to the survey, reported they needed to fill 6,227 slots this school year.
Districts have tried to make up the difference by putting people who do not meet standard teaching requirements in front of classrooms. That includes those who are in a teacher intern program and those who have emergency teaching certificates, people who lack any actual training in how to teach but have some professional background in the subject like math or physics.
But these are not long-term solutions, with these certificates valid for just one year and available only three times to any individual.
Other slots were filled by those whose certification has not yet been approved.
All those alternative methods managed to produce nearly 2,980 people in classrooms.
Yet, even with all that, schools reported they still have 1,547 positions where there are just no teachers to be had.
The largest share of these vacancies are currently being “filled’’ with long-term substitutes. But schools also have gotten creative, forcing existing teachers to take on additional classes, putting more children into classes than districts determine is suitable, and creating multi-grade classrooms.
Complicating the problem, according to the report, is that 300 teachers who they were counting on already have resigned this year, with another 109 that didn’t even report to work on the first day of school. And 54 simply abandoned their jobs.
In the tri-city region, the three districts — Chino Valley Unified, Humboldt Unified and Prescott Unified — reported a few vacancies as well as some teachers with intern certificates working toward earning their standard certification within a two-year time period. The most challenging jobs to fill in these areas tend to be for special education and specialist positions, including school psychologists and speech pathologists.
In Chino Valley, there is one opening for a special education teacher at the Territorial Early Childhood Center, one that was filled but became vacant due to an emergency. Assistant Superintendent Cindy Daniels said the district this year created five additional special positions and with those additions had a new hiring force of 34 individuals, six of them working with intern certificates. The district’s teaching staff includes no long-term substitutes.
Daniels emphasized her district has been fortunate that over the course of the last couple years it has been able to fill all of its vacancies with certified teachers, including faculty members who are coming out of retirement from other states, prior to the opening of school. She said part of the success is that it is a small, supportive district that offers a four-day work week.
In Humboldt Unified, the district’s employment website is still advertising for a third-grade teaching position at Mountain View Elementary and a science teacher position at Bradshaw Mountain High School. Another 14 support positions, such as teacher aides, food and nutrition services, bus drivers as well as two psychologist positions and one speech pathologist, are also listed. The number of faculty working with as either long-term substitutes, intern or emergency certificates was not able to be ascertained on Thursday.
Prescott Unified hired 35 new teachers this year; two are long-term substitutes and four are working with intern certificates or are enrolled in a university program that provides courses that will enable them to obtain a standard certificate, said Human Resources Director Christa Simmons. One teacher this year is working as both an intern and student teacher, she said.
The Arizona Department of Education offers various avenues to certification, but districts all require their faculty to have those official credentials.
The only vacant position in PUSD now is a special education preschool position at Discovery Gardens, she said.
In past years, area educators said they have seen a drop in open vacancies after the start of the school year. Simmons said she believes upgraded salary schedules are helping with retention, and eventually will prove a recruiting tool, particularly as salaries increase over the next two years.
“It will take a while to turn the boat around, but every year it gets a little better, and the 20 percent by 2020 is a really nice incentive,” Simmons said.
Justin Wing, the association’s immediate past president, said there is one bright spot in the numbers in comparison to the three prior years it has conducted the survey: The number of vacancies to be filled actually is down from the nearly 7,000 at the same time last year.
What’s likely behind that, he said, is money.
Legislation approved earlier this year provided enough for what would be the equivalent of an immediate 9 percent increase in salaries.
The exact amount each teacher got varies, with how to divide up the cash left to individual school boards. While some provided across-the-board increases, others front-loaded starting salaries to attract more teachers, while others came up with different formulas.
But Wing said what the survey showed — and what he found in his own Washington Elementary School District in Phoenix — is that the salary boost improved year-over-year retention.
“I had teachers who planned on retiring at the end of the year going, ‘Wait a minute. Never mind,’’’ he said, saying this is the first large increase many teachers across the state have had in some time.
“Seven years in a row they didn’t have an increase at all,’’ Wing said of his own district.
Staying on longer does more than mean additional take-home dollars. A higher ending salary also can boost pension benefits.
Still, those teachers eventually will retire. The question that remains, Wing said, is whether the salary hike — including a pair of 5 percent pay increases in each of the next two years — is enough to finally turn the situation around.
It starts, he said, with “that hole we’ve dug ourselves into’’ for the past few years.
Recruiting more teachers with higher salaries, Wing said, will take time.
“It takes four years before you graduate with a College of Ed degree,’’ he said. That, Wing said, means it will take incoming college freshmen to decide now they want to pursue teaching, perhaps with the promise of higher pay than the nearly bottom-of-the-barrel average wages that Arizona has provided until now.
And that still leaves the question whether salaries alone are enough to attract more into the profession. He said there has been a decline in the number of students seeking education degrees at Arizona universities.
Only if there is a boost in enrollment, Wing said, will the state know that it is finally doing what’s necessary to deal with the perennial shortage of qualified teachers. And even then, he said, success will be measured by whether there is competition among applicants for available jobs.
“Just like any business, you have an opening, you don’t want one applicant,’’ Wing said. “You want multiple applicants if you want to hire the best fit, the best quality individuals.’’
That’s not the case now.
“I’ve had 10 openings since mid-July,’’ he said, with six of these still yet to be filled — and “from zero to one applicant’’ for each job.
Arizona Superintendent of Public Instructiton Diane Douglas said the latest numbers are not a surprise.
“Unfortunately, the results of this annual survey again underscore the struggles our schools are facing as a result of the continuing teacher shortage in Arizona,’’ she said.
Douglas, who advocated for pay hikes long before Gov. Doug Ducey came up with his pay hike plan, said money is only part of the solution. She said the state needs other ways to attract people to the profession.
One of those, she said, is the Troops to Teachers program aimed at helping current and former members of the military begin careers in education. Douglas’ agency got a $735,000 grant earlier this year for staff for that program.
Douglas also said a new online certification portal will help reduce delays in getting teachers the proper paperwork to enter the classroom.
Gubernatorial press aide Daniel Ruiz cited the improvement in the retention rate among teachers as proof that the Ducey’s programs, including the pay hike, are working. As to the issue of getting more people into the profession at the front end, he said the governor has been pushing programs, including a “teaching academy’’ that gives some education students free tuition as well as alternate pathways into the classroom beside the traditional university teacher-training programs.
Wing said there are issues beyond pay that deter people from going into teaching or staying in the profession. But here, too, money is an issue.
For example, there is the question of class size. Recent studies have shown Arizona has more students per teacher than just about any other state in the country.
But as Wing said, that is unlikely to improve until there are more people willing to enter the profession — and stay there.
Courier staff writer Nanci Hutson contributed to this story.