Gloria Rebecca Gomez

(Arizona Mirror) Teachers in the Grand Canyon State face the second-worst pay gap in the country, earning a third less than other college-educated employees.

The most recent teacher pay analysis from the Economic Policy Institute found that Arizona teachers earned 33.2% less last year than other workers with college degrees did, placing the state just behind Colorado’s 37.4% gap. That’s a jump from 2021, when Arizona ranked 4th worst and the cause, according to the report’s authors, has a lot to do with the economy.

In 2022, the inflation rate was at 8.8%, the highest spike since 1981. Abysmal inflation rates have the effect of canceling out any pay increases, but the salaries of private sector workers and teachers respond differently. The average weekly wages of teachers plummeted by $128 from 2021 to 2022, while other workers saw little to no change. Part of that has to do with how their differing pay structure works: private sector salaries can adjust to economic conditions as needed, but teacher pay is dependent on contracts and government budgets.

And in Arizona, a state which has long underfunded public education and only recently begun approving record funding increases, the deterioration of teacher pay has snowballed. The state has been struggling with a teacher shortage since at least 2016. The latest analysis from the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association reported in September that as many as 6,000 classrooms lacked a qualified instructor well into the first month of the academic year.

Across the country, the teacher pay gap has increased sharply since 1996, when the national rate stood at 15.7%. Today, the rift between the weekly wages of teachers and other college graduates is higher than 20% in more than 30 states. In the worst states, like Arizona and Colorado, teachers earn less than 70 cents on the dollar when compared to their peers. The only solution, write the report’s authors, is to invest in public education above inflation rates.

“A world-class public educational system cannot be accomplished without the best and the brightest heading our classrooms,” reads the report. “And it cannot be done on the cheap.”

Unlike private sector professionals, the majority of teacher compensation is concentrated in their benefits packages. But even accounting for that difference doesn’t substantially offset the pay gap. Including benefits into the equation would only reduce the national gap to 17% from 26.4%, which is still an all time high.

The report’s authors pointed out that continually dismal pay gaps have a direct impact on teacher retention and recruitment levels. As the job becomes increasingly less attractive due to culture war attacks and a rise in gun violence, pay is one area that can be remedied.

“Teachers have one of the most consequential jobs in the country — they have the future of the U.S. in front of them every day. But teaching is becoming a less appealing career choice for new college graduates,” reads the report. “Providing teachers with compensation commensurate with that of other similarly educated and experienced professionals is necessary to retain and attract qualified workers into the profession.”

The national average for public school teacher pay is $66,745, according to estimates from the National Education Association. But actual salaries vary widely; in Arizona, the average teacher salary is $56,775 — nearly $10,000 less than its national counterpart and only about $4,000 above what’s considered a living wage in the Grand Canyon State. By contrast, New Jersey, the state with the smallest teacher pay gap in the country, has an average public school teacher salary of $79,045 — more than $14,000 higher than its living wage.

Reacting to the Economic Policy Institute’s findings on social media, Arizona’s largest teacher’s union, the Arizona Education Association, lamented the environment educators in the Grand Canyon State deal with.

“When educators aren’t paid and respected as professionals, it’s hard to retain experienced, talented people — and students pay the price,” wrote the organization on X, formerly Twitter.