By Philip Brown

A couple of weeks ago I published a blog called, Should a Teacher’s Salary Be Able to Support a Family.  In the two weeks since it was published it has had almost 10,000 views!  This is a follow up to that conversation.

What does it really cost to live in Arizona?

There’s a cost of living index that analyzes these types of questions.  The index considers taxes, mortgage, groceries, utilities, clothing and other typical expenses.  Arizona ranks 20th in the average cost of living (cheapest).  That’s pretty much in the middle. 

https://www.missourieconomy.org/indicators/cost_of_living/ 

That is great information for letting us know where we line up with the rest of the country, but it doesn’t answer the question about the actual cost of living. 

Keep in mind we are trying to address whether teachers can live on a teacher’s salary in Arizona.  Teaching, being a profession and a career, is a life-long endeavor.  So let’s look at buying a home in Arizona.

According to Zillow, the median home list price is $234,000, while the average mortgage payment is $1,061 a month.

https://smartasset.com/mortgage/the-cost-of-living-in-arizona

http://realtormag.realtor.org/daily-news/2012/01/03/what-does-average-home-owner-pay-mortgage

The question of utilities in Arizona is tricky, something all Arizona residents know well.  The summers are famously hot, but the winters quite mild.  The average cost of utilities (water and electric) is just over $165 according to smartasset.com  (link above).
A family of four in Arizona typically spends almost $875 a month on groceries.  http://livingwage.mit.edu/counties/04013

Medical insurance has been well document to have risen by over 100% since 2014, (http://tucson.com/news/state-and-regional/key-facts-about-rising-arizona-health-insurance-premiums/article_a47dd56a-9d18-11e6-932f-afb173228d09.html) premiums cost a family $7,800 a year in my district. 

 There’s precious little information regarding average medical expenses (not including insurance premiums) in Arizona.  The premiums are of course steep, but after calculating co-pays, deductibles, paying for whatever the insurance company didn’t cover, prescriptions, equipment and other associated costs, I think an average of $1,200 a year is on the modest side!  That’s a complete and total guess.

 

Transportation is just over $800 a month in Maricopa County for a family of four, and taxes are right about the same, just slightly less.  http://livingwage.mit.edu/counties/04013

Let’s throw in $120 for a cheap cellphone plan, $280 a month for student loans (http://www.cicmoney101.org/Articles/Budgeting-for-Student-Loan-Repayment.aspx), and assume there is no unsecured debt involved.


 

We will not be considering clothing or entertainment, nor will we consider things like dental or vision care, life insurance or donating to fundraisers that students are always working on.  Aside from those items, here’s what we have:

Mortgage

$1,061

Utilities

$165

Groceries

$875

Medical

$750

Transportation $800
Phone $120
Student Loans $280
Taxes $830
Total $4,881

 

Now let’s consider that the average teacher’s salary is $42,540 (http://www.teachingdegree.org/arizona/salary/).  That’s $3,545 a month before social security, medicare and ASRS, which all add up to around 20% of the gross income.  That bring us to $2,836 on average, per month.

Compare that to the standard cost of living in Arizona and you perhaps can appreciate why teachers are leaving!

 

Concerns from a Thoughtful Voter
  
I would like to see a good economic analysis so I can respond meaningfully with my vote.
 
Concern: First I would like to be assured that all Arizonans have recovered sufficiently from the financial crisis that they would be able to support these demands.
 
Response: It is tough to assure that ALL Arizonans have recovered. However, how about signs of a healthy economy?
 

Arizona’s growth is outpacing the national growth. https://www.azeconomy.org/data/forecast-data/

 
Plus, our population is growing as are the number of jobs. https://www.azcentral.com/story/money/business/2017/02/21/arizona-economy-population/98197566/
 
Concern: Secondly the demand for a 20% salary increase is still quite out of line with the raises most of us are getting in the range of maybe 2% to 5%.
 
Response: If one only looks at the number 20%, it is shocking. This number would put us back where teachers were paid a decade ago.
 
I’ll try to explain as clearly as possible. This gets complicated quickly, and I’d be happy to share all of the background information. Here’s the situation:
 
Due to pay freezes, lack of cost of living increases over the past decade, and increased employee contributions to “benefits,” teachers are making less take-home money than a decade ago, without adjusting for inflation!
 
The gross salaries have increased slightly the past two or three years, 1% to 4% depending on where a teacher works, but that is the increase for an entire decade. Inflation has far outpaced this.
 
Using the government’s inflation adjustment calculator teachers made around $10,000 more in starting pay a decade ago than they do today. That, in combination with years of pay freezes, has veteran teachers often earning less than brand-new teachers with similar educations.
 
Concern: Thirdly it seems when demanding equivalence with other locales we should verify that cost of living stats are also equivalent with those of those other locales.
 
Response: This one is actually pretty easy to answer. We are 20th cheapest in the nation. So, right around the middle. Oklahoma, by comparison, is 3rd.
https://www.missourieconomy.org/indicators/cost_of_living/
 
Concern: Finally many of us are now severely underemployed as our jobs in high tech moved to Asia – after ten years working retail a job for which I am qualified finally opened at a salary of 20% less than I was making in 2008. I have yet to see a thorough economic analysis of these issues but as a supporter of education I would love to see one.
 
Response: This last point is painful for many, and I am very sensitive to this line of thinking. The biggest difference here is public versus private. Education is a public concern and there’s not been a shift in technology or economy (sustained shift negative shift) to cause the education funding issue.
 
To see an overview of the nature of the situation in Arizona with education and to see why it is “suddenly” a crisis, this 5 minute video can help explain. All of the data is verifiable and I can provide references for any questions one might have.

In a few short years there will be no one left to teach in Arizona.  That’s not an alarmist’s statement, it’s just the nature of what’s to come.

This #RedforEd movement is important for all members of our great state because the government has not been executing the will of the voters.  The price will be high.  Education needs to be restored for the stability of Arizona, both economically but also socially and culturally.  

Without arguing the merits  of education, or the reasons education has been gutted, or any of the possible remedies, let us just look at the current state of affairs with educators (teachers) in Arizona.

  • 24% of current teachers are within 4 years of retirement (source)
  • 42% of new teachers leave the profession within 3 years (source)
  • Almost 900 teachers left mid-contract in 2018 (source)
  • 2,000 teaching jobs are unfilled (source)
  • 3,400 teaching jobs are filled by unqualified people (source)

Let’s look at a couple of looming funding and financial issues that will only make this worse.

  • The small extra funding the state has produced for education has come from Prop 123 (which was a sham to begin with).  That has been ruled as illegal by a federal judge.  That means education could be cut by another $344,000,000.  (source)
  • School districts may have to repay millions in mis-allocated (by the state) federal Special Education funding.  (source)
  • Insurance premiums have tripled between 2013 and 2017 (source) and are going up again this year! 
  • Teacher pay in Arizona, adjusted for cost of living in the state, is worst in the nation.  Check out this map for great information.
  • Funding for education has been in decline since 2001 when monitoring began by the Auditor General.

  • In many cases teachers make less today than they did in the past.  Here’s one example:

As awareness of the financial landscape increase among teachers, and as more would-be teachers look into the financial prospects of teaching, it will become increasingly difficult for schools to fill positions.  

Who will be teaching in Arizona in five years?

Going on strike is powerful.  But, like a nuclear bomb, the fallout is dangerous!  Maybe it could be powerful enough to win the war, but at what cost?

To be clear, here’s my view.  I fear that if a strike took place in Arizona over education, teacher pay in particular, we may get lucky and get a 5% raise.  But that would fail to bring most teachers from the depths of poverty. We would likely be in the same exact situation in a handful of years.  What would we do then, strike again? I don’t think it would work a second time so soon. Maybe I’m wrong.

During a strike people will panic to find ways to appease the striking force, while others will certainly be hardened to our causes. But those working under duress to fix education will be the same that failed to do so during calm times.  

And for how long could we strike?  We are poor, remember. Many of us have zero savings, scraping by if barely so.  

It is my opinion that teacher pay is just the first major symptom of a diseased system.  Throw a bandaid over it, let it scab over, and the infection will fester under the skin, just out of sight of the public’s eye.

The next time the sore opens, it may be too far gone to repair.

The #RedForEd movement in Arizona started the same weekend as this company.  The situation with education is ripe for some changes. It feels almost all parties involved sense it, feel it coming.  Last week Litchfield School District used a bond (or budget override) to increase teacher and support staff pay by up to 10.4%!

There are around 3,000 teaching vacancies in Arizona, despite Ducey’s plan to stick anyone, regardless of ability, in a classroom.

A small district in Sonoita had to eliminate 5th grade, integrating those kids with 6th and letting a teacher go.

The writing is on the wall.  I don’t think a strike is most effective here.  I think we just need to educate the public, show them the writing on the wall while also showing them the value we bring to our communities.

It is an election year for many school board members and for our state positions.  Reach out to your board members, let them know that it is time to change. Even short term help, for a year or two, can buy time for things to get straightened out at the state level.

What are your thoughts.  These are the things that stand out to us at Arizona’s Working Poor, but we wish to have a conversation with those that disagree.  Leave a comment below, maybe you’ll sway us!

 

Regardless, avoiding infighting is crucial at this point.  Yet, these approaches are contentious. We are all articulate and educated, so ask to learn, not coerce, listen to understand, not respond.  And remember, we all want the same thing … a great education system that best promotes the health and stability of our communities. (Attracting and retaining quality teachers is a big part of that!)

A teacher should be able to comfortably support a family on their income. 

There, I said it.  It’s out in the open.  If you disagree, let’s hear why in a positive and constructive manner.   If you believe that a teacher should not earn enough money to support a family, why not?

The fact of the matter is that teachers do NOT make enough money to support a family.  In fact, they don’t even get close to making enough money.  The situation is like this, in my opinion.  The structure of teacher compensation in Arizona today is such that the profession is the epitome of a dead end job. 

A dead end job is a job that offers no hope of financial security, despite improving in the skill and production the employee provides to the organization, a job where the input and expertise of the employee is not considered, a job where the employee is treated as interchangeable, perhaps even replaceable by a computer program.

Let’s tackle the financial aspect for now.   In Arizona many districts had a pay scale based on number of years served in the district.  Every year a teacher worked they would receive a slight bump in pay.  Every few years the board would adjust that baseline to meet inflation (or try to make it look as though they were).   It has been common practice to remove those pay scales (called steps) and instead rely on the board to give a raise of percentage to all teachers in that district. 

That means that the teacher that is a warm body, handing out worksheets daily, and the teacher that is devoting their personal time to helping students and is actively helping other teachers improve their craft, both receive identical changes in pay, IF a governing body will approve the raise proposed by the district office.  Since the largest expense of a district office is teacher salary, and they’re scrambling to make ends meet themselves, they’re pretty stingy about offering raises. 

Combine that with inflation and out of control medical insurance premium increases and we suddenly have a situation where a teacher supporting a family is going broke, and fast.

I think we’ve established the lack of connection between compensation and performance.

What about the hope of financially securing a better future?  Can a teacher support a small family by living modestly and still afford a surprise broken water heater, a flat tire, car registration and a trip to the doctor for a toddler with a cough, all in the same month without breaking out a credit card?

I did some research and used this link (https://smartasset.com/mortgage/the-cost-of-living-in-arizona) to calculate the average cost of some basic needs here in Arizona.  Some of these seemed a bit high, others a bit low, but I just went with what I found.

A typical monthly income for a teacher with a family, one that is paying for insurance, is around $1,300 a month.  The average expense for a family of four living modestly in Arizona is $1,840.  Now that family will likely receive some public assistance, might have slightly cheaper auto insurance, might not own a cell phone … but even so, trying to raise a family on a teacher salary would mean living in debt.

I do not believe that is appropriate. 

While people are working on the state to improve teacher pay and also, hopefully, excite some meaningful education reform to remedy the issues that caused this problem to begin with, as well as to improve the experiences of our students, I’m doing something to help.

Arizona’s Working Poor is a nonprofit organization.  Our main function is to find teachers in Arizona that are the sole source of income for a family and give them a gift of $500.  It is not welfare, it is a show of gratitude as well as an apology.  We thank you for what you do, we thank you for the incredible sacrifices you and your family make on the behalf of the greater good of our society.  We are sorry it took us so long to start working to change this thing.

If you’d like to read more about this program, called Giving Back, click here.

If you’d like to help our cause you can find information on our website to do so:  http://arizonasworkingpoor.com