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Arizona teachers say 20 percent pay raise helps, but concerns remain

(AP Photo/Matt York)

KTAR News 92.3 FM continues to cover education in Arizona. This week’s focus is on “The Changing Face of the Arizona Teacher.”

PHOENIX — When Elisabeth Milich posted a photo of her teacher salary on Facebook, she never expected it to go viral.

It showed she makes about $35,600 a year as a second grade teacher at Whispering Wind Academy in Phoenix.

Milich, who’s been teaching for seven years, said she posted her salary to make a point.

“The point was it’s appalling that you have to have a college degree, be highly-qualified – a lot of people have their master’s – and the pay is just so low for teachers,” she said.

“I think it struck a chord with a lot of people going, ‘Oh, we didn’t know this is what actually teachers make.’”

Her take-home pay every two weeks is $639 after taxes, health insurance for her children and retirement costs are taken out. She said she uses some of that to buy school supplies for her students.

“Every colored board you see in a classroom, a teacher has bought,” she said. “Rugs and pillows and anything to make it be inviting for a student to want to be there for six hours a day, a teacher has bought that or paid for that.”

Milich said Gov. Doug Ducey’s recently approved plan to give Arizona teachers a 20 percent pay raise by 2020 does help.

But she said she’s worried it won’t be enough to keep new teachers from fleeing to nearby states, where starting teacher salaries are at least $10,000 more.

After deductions for taxes, pension and health care benefits, Milich said teachers may still see low wages.

Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said the deductions teachers see in their paychecks are similar to those of other employees in other industries.

“The biggest difference is teachers in school districts in Arizona and in some charter schools are part of the Arizona State Retirement System, which is a retirement system for state employees,” he said.

The current employee monthly contribution to the state’s retirement system is 11.5 percent. Starting in July, it will be 11.8 percent.

The median pay for Arizona elementary school teachers is $44,990 and $48,306 for high school teachers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s much lower than in most nearby states.

A Texas school district, for example, recently put up billboards in Phoenix advertising a starting teacher salary of $52,000.

Monica Rosales, who graduated with a teaching degree from Arizona State University in May, said the billboards make it tempting to move to Texas. But she already decided to stay and teach in Arizona. Her starting salary will be about $35,000 a year.

“We need good teachers here,” she said, explaining her decision to teach in Arizona. “If good teachers don’t stay here, a lot more are just going to keep leaving.”

In August, Rosales will begin teaching sixth grade math and science at Clarendon Elementary School, which has a large population of Latino and low-income students. She said the school has similar demographics as the schools she grew up attending.

“I know the struggle for those kind of students,” she said. “I was one of them.”

Rosales said she has not ruled out getting a second job later in her career, like other teachers have done.

Cynthia Morton, a middle school science teacher, said she had a total of four jobs up until about a month ago.

“I have a master’s degree,” she said. “I have been in the classroom for 13 years, and I’m just finally starting to be able to survive without a second or a third job.”

Morton said she teaches during the day, tutors a few nights a week and drives for Lyft during the weekends.

Like Morton, Sunnyslope Elementary School teacher Lisa Kling said she holds multiple jobs. She’s a Starbucks barista, is a group fitness instructor and recently started an online wine service.

Kling said the 20 percent pay raise by 2020 “is definitely going to help.”

“It’s going to help teachers who, like me, are single parents and people who have been here for a long time and haven’t seen that pay raise,” she said. “It’s definitely a start. I know I’m appreciative of it.”

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