Kwok: Is Arizona teacher pay 28th, 43rd or 50th? Actually, all 3 are true
Thousands of #RedForEd Arizona teachers rally for more education funding at the state Capitol in Phoenix on March 28, 2018. Thomas Hawthorne/azcentral.com
Is teacher pay in Arizona 43rd in the country? Or is it 50th? Or 38th? Or 28th?
And we should all pay heed – not because the rankings and data are wrong, per se; they’re not. Or because adversaries in the education-funding realm pick and choose whatever number suits their argument. That’s a given.
It is because the statistical points have merit in helping to frame perspectives, if not the solutions, on how Arizona address teacher pay.
This report started the salary debate
Reports released since last year, including a commonly cited assessment by the Morrison Institute at ASU that many now use as a rallying cry for higher salaries, illustrate the point.
The Morrison Institute report took federal data on salaries, adjusted them with a cost-of-living measurement, and concluded that Arizona’s elementary school teachers ranked 50th and its high school teachers 49th. Another ASU researcher used more granular data with the same sources and similarly found Arizona cities near the bottom among 360 U.S.. cities.
Those who took issue with the conclusions included the Arizona Tax Research Association. The taxpayer watchdog group challenged the cost-of-living tool in the Morrison Institute report, known as the Regional Price Parities, because home prices aren't used to determine housing costs. Instead, RPP relies on rents and rent-equivalents, i.e. how much homeowners would pay if they were renting their home.
The complaint was a bit odd given that it suggested figures only for Arizona rents or housing costs are inflated. The group provided no evidence or explanation to back up its gripe.
A counterpoint raised Arizona's ranking
In countering the bottom rankings, Arizona Tax Research Association offered up another formula, basing it off National Education Association salary figures, which ranked Arizona 43rd in the country in 2016. The data was adjusted with a cost-of-living tool different than RPP and spit out a ranking of 38th for Arizona.
That drew attacks, too. NEA figures are less comprehensive – numbers for some states are based off surveys – and critics say the use of average salaries may get skewed given Arizona's number of new teachers and high turnover rate.
That said, its cost-of-living tool, COLI (Cost of Living Index), does take into account home prices and shows a greater range of price differences among the localities surveyed – suggesting it is a better metric than Regional Price Parities. (COLI is featured in various cost-of-living calculators on the web, which gives it cachet among the general public.)
The thinking from ATRA and its adherents: No bragging rights, being ranked 38th, but not bottom of the barrel, either.
Arizona teacher pay 28th best in the nation?
A bigger head-scratcher of a teacher-pay ranking also came via Arizona Tax Research Association, as part of a January 2017 report on school financing statistics. This one framed the average pay of Arizona teachers in 2014 ($46,026) against the state's per-capita income ($38,006) – that is, teacher salaries averaged 25.7 percent above the per-capita income basis.
Calculations were made for the other 49 states and the District of Columbia. In this interpretation, Arizona teachers ranked 28th.
Gov. Doug Ducey raised that finding – and some eyebrows – when he went on a radio news interview in November and said, erroneously, that some indices factoring in cost of living would have Arizona ranked at No. 29 and not at the bottom.
It's off the mark, but not entirely off-base
The teacher pay/per-capita income comparison, in fact, had nothing to do with cost of living. But it wasn't a meaningless citation, either. ATRA's point is the index put Arizona in a comparable spot with the likes of Utah and New Mexico and should be at least considered in policy discussion.
That has some relevance given Arizona teachers are demanding a 20 percent raise to, among other things, close a huge gap with the median pay nationally and those of neighboring states.
Rankings don't change that we have a crisis
#RedforEd is on the right track with its list of demands for education, columnist Joanna Allhands says. It's just talking to the wrong people about them.
Those acknowledgements don't alter the prevailing narrative and evidence that Arizona remains at or near the bottom on teacher pay and per-pupil spending. And they don't improve the chronic shortage that has left hundreds of Arizona classrooms without an instructor.
Nor do they change the perspective that to make up for the dramatic cuts public schools endured during the Great Recession, a greater infusion of money is required – whether via legislative action or the ballot box.
But that narrative should also accommodate different teacher-earnings snapshots. And of strides made with the modest raises in recent years, as well as the extension of Prop. 301 education tax that will lead to more money for teachers.
The points that Arizona is making progress and still have a long, long way to go are not mutually exclusive.
Reach Abe Kwok at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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