On July 5, Arizona’s education requirements for teachers changed significantly. Legislation signed by Gov. Doug Ducey now makes it possible for a person who’s simply enrolled to get their college degree to begin teaching in public schools, rather than having those jobs be open only to people who’ve already completed their degree.
Under Senate Bill 1159, sponsored by Republican Sen. Rick Gray, people can complete training to become a teacher while finishing a bachelor’s degree, essentially learning how to teach as they go. The bill also allows flexibility for educators who want to renew expired licenses and start teaching again.
The move comes as Arizona public schools are facing a significant teacher shortage. An October 2021 survey by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association found that 25.9% of teacher vacancies across the state were unfilled and that more than half of the vacancies were filled by teachers not meeting the state’s standard certification requirements. The report also showed that approximately a quarter of teacher vacancies had been unfilled a month into each school year since 2016.
In 2017, Ducey signed Senate Bill 1042, which allowed principals to hire highly qualified professionals with significant subject matter experience and a higher-education degree to be certified to teach.
“For the past eight years, we have made it a priority to give our kids a high-quality education, and this legislation builds on those actions,” Ducey said in a statement about the new legislation. “S.B. 1159 will ensure that more Arizonans have the opportunity to pursue a career in education and help get our kids caught up.”
The Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association countered that while there are advantages to providing career change opportunities, Arizona is still not addressing the reasons why young adults there are not entering the field of education. Primarily, it highlights the fact that Arizona’s rate of pay for teachers remains one of the lowest in the nation. Others have echoed this sentiment.
“We continue to have the largest classroom sizes,” Democratic State Rep. Jennifer Pawlik, an elementary school teacher for 17 years, told Phoenix’s KNXV-TV. “We continue to have the lowest teacher salaries across the country. Surely that’s impacting people’s decisions on whether to teach in Arizona.”
A 2021 report on teacher wages found that Arizona teachers did indeed make the lowest average salary in the U.S., at $47,606. The National Education Association reports that the state’s starting salary for teachers, $40,554, is less than the national average but about $8,000 above the lowest state, Montana.
Proponents say the new bill will be beneficial with the right candidates.
“It could work,” Christopher Ramsey, a Phoenix-based teacher, told AZ Family. “Obviously, there’s no one-size-fits-all plan. I’m a teacher, and I taught for two years while doing an accelerated master’s program, so I didn’t have my teacher’s degree.”
Critics of the bill are also concerned that unprepared and less-educated people will now be teaching their children. The Arizona Education Association and the Arizona School Administrators Association both opposed the law.
“You have to have some experience,” Marisol Garcia, president of the AEA, told AZ Family. “It’s going to allow people to do on-the-job training, and that’s where it’s scary.”