Arizona's low pay is wearing thin with teachers, and the state is losing out

Carly and Justin Swotek have given up on Arizona.

The married couple -- both certified K-12 teachers who worked at Phoenix-area public schools -- is preparing to move their two children to China in August, where they will continue their passion for teaching at a private school for English-speaking students.

“We just don’t feel the state is serious in the long term about teachers and education,” Justin said.

The couple estimate they’ll be able to save about $20,000 annually while working in China.

“We’ve been thinking, 'What we can do get set up for our future?' Unfortunately, we just can’t do much being teachers here,” Carly said.

Their decision represents a sentiment of frustration by many educators in Arizona, though it’s difficult to estimate how frequently they are willing to move out-of-state to teach elsewhere.

42 percent of Arizona teachers hired in 2013 left the profession in-state within three years, according to research compiled by the Morrison Institute of Public Policy. But those statistics, generated by the Arizona Department of Education, do not specify what the teachers did next.

“What happened to them after they left that database, we don’t know,” said Dan Hunting of the Morrison Institute of Public Policy. “Some of them retired. Some may have gone on to other professions in Arizona. Some may have gone to become school administrators and some may have left the state either to teach in another state or to change professions entirely.”

Hunting said he has received anecdotal evidence from school districts near border states that they are losing teachers to competing districts in California, Nevada and New Mexico.

RELATED: Gov. Ducey says Arizona teachers could get $10K raises if districts tried. He's wrong.

“Other states are able to entice Arizona teachers to move to their districts and the enticement is not hard to figure out. It’s pay,” Hunting said.

The state remains ranked near the bottom nationally for school teacher salaries and lawmakers recently passed a modest 1 percent statewide pay raise scheduled for next year.

Low pay continues to make it difficult for Arizona to recruit and retain teachers, said Justin Wing, former director of the Arizona Personnel Administrator Association. Wing said the problem is especially evident at teacher recruiting fairs.

“Everyone (from Arizona districts) is trying to exhaust all their recruiting efforts, trying to be the best salespeople possible, I would say probably to an annoying level,” Wing said. "But when the table next to you is paying 15 to 17 thousand dollars more in starting salary, it gets much more attention than Arizona school districts."

A highly-touted law passed by the legislature earlier this year was supposed to help add candidates to the teaching pool. It loosens credentials needed to become a teacher and paves the way for qualified professionals in certain fields to get easier access to classrooms.

Wing said the impact of the law appears minimal so far.

“The Washington Elementary School District has received just a few contacts from some of those related to those certification changes,” said Wing, who is now the human resources director for the Washington Elementary School. “From what I hear from other human resource professionals in other school systems, they have not received waves of candidates because of that new law. In my opinion, it didn’t address the root cause of the teacher shortage.”

Justin and Carly Swotek say the passage of the law was another confirmation for them that they made the right decision to leave Arizona.

“It’s kind of a slap in the face to us as educators,” Justin Swotek said. “And these kind of decisions make me less confident to send my own children to our public schools here.”

© 2017 KPNX-TV


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