Arizona’s teacher shortage has grown worse in the long shadow of the pandemic.

School districts across the state this year filled just 28% of their vacancies, according to a just released report by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association (ASPAA).

Payson Unified School District Superintendent Linda Gibson said the shortage has hit home. The district lost six teachers at the end of the school year, and another six teachers left over the summer. That represents a nearly 10% turnover. One of the six teachers who left over the summer cited the risks of the pandemic.

The district also has seven teachers working on emergency credentials, which means they haven’t completed the normal training. Two teachers have said they want to continue teaching online classes, even after in-person classes start.

Several years ago, the Arizona Legislature addressed the growing teacher shortage by waiving many of the credentialing requirements and making it easier for administrators to grant emergency credentials to people to teach outside the field or prior to completing the normal teacher training.

The finding could boost prospects for Prop. 208, which would more than double the state’s income tax rate for income above $250,000, which would therefore affect the top 1% of earners. The added income tax would add $1 billion to the state’s budget — earmarked mostly for teachers.

Arizona has among the lowest teacher salaries in the country, despite a 20% pay boost in the past three years. The state also has among the largest class sizes.

The online research site Wallet Hub recently ranked Arizona as the third worst state in the nation for teachers. Only New Mexico and New Hampshire had lower rankings. Arizona’s ranking was poor even before the pandemic, according to Wallet Hub based on census and other data.

• 43rd for starting salaries (adjusted for cost of living).

• 49th for average teacher salary (adjusted for cost of living).

• The highest student-teacher ration in the country at 43 to 1.

• 48th in per-student spending.

• 25th in teacher income growth potential.

• 42nd for 10-year change in teacher salaries.

• 33rd for the existence of a digital learning plan.

The pandemic only added to the woes of schools, as teachers have struggled to convert classes from in-person to online — and faced the prospect of returning to the classroom in the shadow of the pandemic. Studies show students face a low risk of death from the pandemic, but many teachers are in a high-risk group based on age and pre-existing conditions.

The statewide survey of the growing teacher shortage by the ASPAA concluded COVID-19 had made the shortage much worse. The survey included 145 school districts and charters, which reported 751 teachers left at the beginning of the year. Of those, half cited the pandemic as a reason. Many others said they were taking a break from the classroom due to the pandemic.

In addition, 633 other school staff resigned or retired, citing the virus as a reason.

The ASPAA’s past president Justin Wing said salaries are also a factor, since even after the 20% raise over the past three years, Arizona ranks 45th in teacher salaries.

Mostly, however, the ongoing shortage reflects a lack of college students going into the teaching profession, he told Capitol News Service’s Howard Fisher.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman in a statement said the survey was “startling” but “not altogether shocking for the education community. I know this is deeply personal to each educator, and I hope that one day we can recruit them back into our schools.”

The study could give momentum to Invest in Ed, a November ballot measure that would raise $1 billion for K-12 schools, with most of the money earmarked for the classroom.

The ballot measure would increase the top state income tax rate on money earned above $250,000 annually from 3.5% to 4.5%.

The nearly $1 billion raised each year would be earmarked for hiring new teachers, raising teacher salaries, mentoring and retention programs for teachers, career training and education programs for teachers and the Arizona Teachers Academy, which covers the university costs for people seeking a teaching credential.

Half the money would go to adding teachers and boosting pay. About one-quarter would boost salaries for support staff, including classroom aides, cafeteria workers and bus drivers.

The Arizona Chamber of Commerce led a group that sought to keep the measure off the ballot, citing potentially confusing language about the tax increase on the 100-word summary at the top of signature petitions. The state Supreme Court ultimately threw out that challenge.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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