Caitline Sievers/Arizona Mirror

Arizona has one of the biggest teacher pay gaps in the nation.

Public school teachers across the country are paid significantly less than their similarly-educated counterparts, and a new report from the Economic Policy Institute shows that teachers in Arizona faced a 32% wage penalty in 2021 compared to college-educated workers employed in other fields.

Arizona has the fourth-largest teacher pay gap in the nation, behind only Colorado at almost 36%, Oklahoma at 32.8% and Virginia at 32.7%.

“The financial penalty that teachers face discourages college students from entering the teaching profession and makes it difficult for school districts to keep current teachers in the classroom,” EPI said in the report.

Teacher pay penalties are contributing to a severe teacher shortage in Arizona, as well as across the rest of the country.

“Providing teachers with compensation commensurate with that of other similarly educated professionals is not simply a matter of fairness but is necessary to improve educational outcomes and foster future economic stability of workers, their families, and communities across the U.S.,” EPI said in the report.

EPI is a non-profit think tank created in 1986 with the goal of, “including the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions.”

The average weekly pay for public school teachers in the U.S., when adjusted for inflation, only increased $29 from 1996 to 2021, while weekly wages for other college graduates increased $445 during that time, according to EPI.

And while teachers typically receive more compensation in the form of benefits than those employed in other fields, those benefits typically don’t make up for the wage gap. Even with benefits factored in, the compensation gap for teachers was still at 14% nationally.

As of January, 31% of teaching positions across Arizona were unfilled, according to a survey from the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association. Since 2016, around a quarter of teaching positions in the state remained unfilled a month into the school year, according to the association’s annual surveys.

“Arizona teacher pay remains one of the lowest in the country, even with the recent teacher salary increases,” the association said in a news release. “The inability to offer competitive salaries severely limits public schools from attracting the best and the brightest. The severity of the teacher shortage must be addressed. Arizona’s leaders must make a collective effort to ensure the recruitment and retention of effective teachers through increased funding. Highly educated and skilled workforce are cornerstones to a growing and thriving economy.”

Arizona’s low pay for teachers shouldn’t come as a surprise, as the state has historically ranked among those that spend the least on education.

In 2020, Arizona had the third-lowest per pupil on K-12 education in the country, according to numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau. And when it came to spending on instruction, Arizona ranked 51st, behind all the states and the District of Columbia.

Teachers in Arizona are paid, on average, among the lowest in the nation, according to a 2021 report from the National Education Association that ranked Arizona at 44th for teacher pay.

Arizona’s 2023 fiscal year budget, signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey in June, included nearly $600 million in new, permanent public school funding, but it’s unclear how much of that funding will go toward pay increases for teachers. Districts could also face barriers in spending the money allocated in the 2023 budget, unless state legislators agree to lift a spending cap based on a formula put into place more than 40 years ago.

While teachers unions and education advocates praised the increase in education funding that came in the 2023 bipartisan budget, many also agreed that it was still not enough to fix the teacher shortage and bring K-12 education funding to where they believe it should be.

“Without targeted & significant policy action-not just on teacher pay but on school funding …there can be no reasonable expectation of reversal in sight for pandemic-stressed schools and those who serve public ed,” Marisol Garcia tweeted in response to the EPI report.

Garcia is president of the Arizona Education Association, a statewide teachers union.