Education summit targets Arizona 'teacher crisis'

Published: Jan. 8, 2016 at 12:08 AM MST|Updated: Mar. 4, 2016 at 12:54 AM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - An education summit held in Tucson on Thursday focused on, what participants are calling, Arizona's teacher crisis.

The teacher shortage is a national issue, but it is worse in Arizona for a number of reasons, including extremely low education funding.

Teachers are leaving the profession or leaving for other states where they believe education is a priority.

Arizona continues to dwell near the bottom of all states in education funding in all areas, from spending per pupil to teacher pay.

The "Let's Talk Ed: Teacher Workforce Summit" was sponsored by Raytheon Missile Systems, Tucson Values Teachers and the Southern Arizona Leadership Council.

It brought together teachers and leaders in business, government and education.

The businesses helped honor teachers with awards and recognition.

Summit participants said the teacher shortage is getting worse as Arizona continues to fall behind other states.

In several ways, including the summit, Tucson businesses are rallying to change things because of the huge economic impact the teacher crisis is having on them.

A Raytheon Missile Systems spokesman said Raytheon supports education because the company depends on it.

"If you look at the engineering metrics overall for the United States in terms of the number of people going into engineering, it's just simply not enough to fill it. And so the fact is that we can't afford to have that gap as a business, as an industry and as a nation and that's the underlying reason behind why we are investing in teachers, investing in schools," said Raytheon Vice President of Communications and External Affairs Jon Kasle. "Business and all voters should be writing their legislators and telling them, yes, we want to invest in education and we expect that that's an opportunity to further the state's fortune going forward."

"Teaching is a complicated craft, and if an engineer can build a rocket to go to the moon, what does that say about the skills that it took to teach the engineer to do that? And then they don't just do that to that one engineer, they do that to 30 kids at a time," said Tucson Unified School District Teacher Sandy Merz, who won a Raytheon Leaders in Education Award at the summit.

At the summit, there was a call for business, individuals and government to support education in Arizona, especially to support teachers who are among the lowest paid in the country.

A Tucson Values Teachers study shows Tucson teacher salaries are nearly $20,000 below the national median teacher salary, while most teachers put in more than 60 hours a week.

Teachers often have two jobs or other help to be able to stay in the profession.

"It is only because I am a secondary income to my family. If I were doing this on my own there would be no way that I could continue to be a teacher because I would be at poverty level raising two kids," said Amphitheater Teacher Brandi Dignum.

Dignum is one of the Arizona Education Foundation Top 5 Teachers in Arizona for 2011.

Tucson Values Teachers Interim Director Katie Rogerson said, "We have new businesses and corporations that are passing on Arizona right now because their employees don't want to move here because of the state of education in Arizona."

"One of the main reasons that Tucson Values Teachers was created was because the business community came together and said, 'we don't have a workforce that's educated enough to fill the openings that we have available right now, and that directly translates into lost revenue in our community.' So good schools mean good communities and a good economy. And that's kind of a no-brainer," Rogerson said.

"We need to come together as a state and decide that good, quality education is a priority, that we can pay our teachers what they're worth so they will stay around," Rogerson said.

Business leaders explained an educated workforce leads to more business success, higher paying jobs, more revenues for the state and a better quality of life.

They said it is an issue about money and putting it where it will do the most good.

"We have underfunded the care and quality of our buildings, textbooks, the teacher pay. We are so low that money is a significant need," said Southern Arizona Leadership Council President and CEO Ron Shoopman.

In May, Arizonans will vote on a proposal to pump billions of dollars into Arizona K-12 public schools.

Proposals to increase state funding are being called a good start, but summit participants said it's just that, a start.

"The business leaders in this community will tell you we believe it's only the first step. More is needed," Shoopman said. "Until we can provide teachers with a living wage where they can afford to take care of their kids and send their kids on to college, then we're going to continue to have this dramatic exodus from our classrooms."

Click here to see the PowerPoint presentation from the summit:

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