PHOENIX — Willing to spend four years in front of a classroom full of fourth-graders?
What if you got a free education degree from one of the state’s three universities?
That’s the deal that Gov. Doug Ducey is offering to some people in a bid to address the state’s teacher shortage.
But the small program — just $1 million spread among the state’s universities — means only some would-be teachers will get tuition waivers. And it remains to be seen whether the offer can help plug the gap between the need and the number of people willing to take and remain on the job.
Ducey proposed the Arizona Teachers’ Academy in January as one method to deal with the state’s chronic teacher shortage.
“I’m looking for the best and brightest to commit to teach in Arizona public schools,” he said in his State of the State speech. “If you make that commitment, we’ll make this commitment: Your education will be paid for, a job will be waiting and you will be free of debt.”
Under the program, which will finally be formally unveiled Tuesday, for each year a student who is accepted into the program promises to teach in a public school, he or she will get a waiver of tuition and fees.
That not only applies to new high school graduates. Universities also can craft their program to pay for a master’s degree in education for someone who already has a degree in something else and might already be in a classroom, teaching with a temporary emergency certificate.
There already are loan forgiveness programs, though they are aimed at filling vacancies either in specialties like science, math and special education, or for those willing to teach in schools located in low-income or rural areas. But the shortage remains.
The Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association found that four weeks into last school year, the 159 school districts and charter schools surveyed still had 2,166 vacancies, meaning schools could fill only three out of every four openings. Others were staffed with those without teaching certificates, long-term substitutes or combining classes.
Justin Wing, past president of the association, said Friday he’s still compiling data for this year. But he said the results so far show it is “still difficult” to fill vacancies.
Wing said a tuition waiver program could help put more people in the pipeline to become teachers. He said it might even mean that more students from disadvantaged families, whose education would otherwise end with a diploma, might go on to college.
But Wing, director of human resources at Washington Elementary School District in Phoenix, said the real problem is keeping teachers in the classroom.
Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association agreed said the program might provide some incentive for people to choose education as a career path.
“But this alone is not going to solve our teacher crisis,” Thomas said. “We have plenty of certified teachers in the state.”
As of Friday, the state Department of Education said there were more than 92,000 active teaching certificates. But just 50,000 of those people were in public school classrooms, with another 10,000 in charter schools.
Thomas said some of that does relate to the cost of education.
“It’s difficult to earn enough money to survive and pay off your debt,” he said.
“It’s not so much that they don’t want to teach,” Thomas said. “The income-to-debt ratio isn’t sustainable and so they have to get another job.”
Lawmakers did address that issue, at least a bit, putting money into the budget for a 1 percent pay hike this year and an identical amount the following year, versus the 0.4 percent proposed by Ducey.
Diane Douglas, the state superintendent of public instruction, said that won’t cut it.
She wants to boost the current 0.6 cent sales tax dedicated to education to a full penny, something that would bring in an additional $400 million a year. She figures earmarking $300 million of that solely for teacher pay would increase salaries by 11 percent, or an average of $5,500.
Ducey, for his part, remains opposed to any expansion of that education tax.
Pay aside, Douglas said Friday she understands how tuition waivers for some selected for the academy might get more people interested in teaching. But Douglas, who is supporting the lawsuit filed by Attorney General Mark Brnovich against the Board of Regents over tuition, had concerns.
“Is it fair that we give some people tuition waivers but not those for whom education might not be the field for them?” she asked.
And Douglas said if the state is giving away free college education, the commitment should be more than just a year-for-year match.
That goes to the other issue: About 40 percent of teachers leave after their second year; by the fifth year, half are gone, leaving the question of what good do waivers do if those who receive them can leave debt-free after four years.
Thomas said the issue goes beyond salaries and the related issue of student debt. He said those who leave more often cite other reasons.
“They really believe that the job’s not what they thought it was going to be,” he said, with issues of class size and workload, including paperwork, cutting into the time they thought they’d be teaching.
“It sounds very noble,” Douglas said of teaching. But she said many have absolutely no idea of what the job really entails.
Wing said this appears particularly true among those who have the alternate teaching certificates, a measure pushed through the Legislature by Ducey to allow those without formal teacher training to run a classroom.
“Some are really good,” he said. But others, Wing said, have no idea what’s in store.
“People think because you’re working with 26 cute, wonderful kids, that’s no problem,” Wing said. “However, it’s a very stressful job.”
In fact, Wing said schools are reporting a lot of situations where new teachers just abandon their jobs in the first few months of the year. That includes not only those who came in through the alternate certification process but who probably weren’t qualified — and should not have been hired in the first place. But Wing said districts didn’t have much choice.
“There’s a lack of competition for every job,” he said, meaning the person hired may have been the only applicant. “I think standards are being lowered.”