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Despite state incentives, Arizona struggles to retain teachers

The Arizona Department of Education offers financial benefits for students pursuing education degrees and certifications, but the state struggles to keep teachers post-graduation

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The H.B. Farmer Education Building for the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Tempe.

Arizona offers financial incentives for students training to be teachers, but the state has faced problems when it comes to retaining them.

The Arizona Teachers Academy offers scholarships for aspiring teachers to attend educator certification programs across the state’s institutions. As part of the agreement, the students must commit to teaching in Arizona for every year they received funding following their graduation.

The associate director of undergraduate programs at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College Carlyn Ludlow said the program can allow some students to graduate without debt.

"The Arizona Teachers Academy funding, for our students, has been a tremendous asset," Ludlow said. "As we all know, teacher salaries are not comparable to their equally educated peers, so not having student loan debt is highly important to students." 

Students who have submitted a Free Application for Federal Student Aid can apply for scholarships through their institution. ASU has 34 state-approved educator preparation programs

The rate at which students have received teaching certificates at ASU has increased over the past three years, in part due to scholarships. From 2021 to 2022, the amount of certificates allocated at ASU rose from 696 to 806. The University has certified 740 students thus far in 2023, according to the Arizona Department of Education.

"When Arizona Teachers Academy came into being, we did see a rise in enrollment. That rising enrollment has been pretty steady over the last few years," Ludlow said.

The problem is not that people do not want to be teachers, Director of Educator Recruitment and Retention at the Arizona Department of Education Jamie Wilbur said, but that the teachers are leaving Arizona after graduation.

"The pipeline, so to speak – people going into these various programs – has been holding pretty steady," Wilbur said. "Data is showing us that teachers are leaving at an alarming rate."

According to the Learning Policy Institute, Arizona has an unfilled teacher vacancy rate of 57.8%, over 10% above the national average.

"Even though people are going into teaching, we're not filling the hole in the leaky bucket, so to speak, fast enough," Wilbur said. "We can recruit all day long, but if we're not focusing on the retention part of things, then it doesn’t matter." 

The Arizona Senate passed an amendment to teacher recruitment programs in 2022, requiring an annual progress report delivered to the governor and state legislature on Nov. 1 of each year. 

Wilbur said factors impacting teacher retention go beyond just salary disputes.

"We have heard the working conditions, a lack of respect and support from the community, a lack of respect and support from administration," Wilbur said. "While salary is still something we will continue to hear, it’s not necessarily the number one thing anymore."

Aliyah Gortarez, a junior studying elementary and special education, said programs like Arizona Teachers Academy attract students to teach in Arizona, but more should be done in the state to support educators after they enter the field.

"Arizona needs teachers, period," Gortarez said. "It’s kind of been consistently disappointing because, obviously, I see statistics … about Arizona always being ranked last, if not second to third last in the country, when it comes to education and keeping teachers."

Despite the challenges in the field, Gortarez said she plans to teach in Arizona when her requirement is over. 

"It’s really disheartening, but it’s also motivating for me," Gortarez said. "I want to stay in this field and I don’t plan on leaving it when, you know, things get rough." 

Ludlow said that though there are many problems in the field of education, she still has hope because of the passion many still have for teaching. 

"I commend everybody that goes into the field of education. It is not for the faint of heart," Ludlow said. "The future of our world is at stake based on education. I think it’s fantastic that people are still interested and want to be a part of the change."

Edited by Alysa Horton, Sadie Buggle and Shane Brennan

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