Arizona’s Alt-Cert Law Replaces 'Teachers' With 'Persons' In Its Classrooms

Protesting education budget cuts at Arizona state capital.
Protesting education budget cuts at Arizona state capital.

Have a bachelor’s degree but are out of work for a while? Your online degree from a no-name college doesn’t wow potential employers? Need a break from cold winters or a boring life, spouse, or job? Coders, accountants, and security guards are being laid-off in your state because of corporate downsizing or budget cuts? Head for Arizona where everyone with a college degree can become a teacher. No training necessary and tests will be waived because you are a “content expert.”

Senate Bill 1042 signed into law in May by Republican Governor Doug Ducey permits “persons” with a college degree to bypass Arizona’s regular teacher certification process to obtain grades 6-12 teaching certificates. The Republican-controlled House approved the bill by a vote of 33-22 and the Republican-controlled State Senate by a vote of 16-12. Arizona Republicans, in a hurry to deprofessionalize teaching, decided classroom persons should have five years of relevant experience in the field, but “relevant” is not defined.

Governor Ducey claims that under the new law, “No longer will an outdated process keep qualified, dedicated individuals out of the classroom . . . principals will now be empowered to make hiring decisions and attract the best individuals to serve our students.” Ironically, in the text of the new law, the word “teachers” was removed and replaced with the word “persons,” possibly because lawmakers realized the people being hired will definitely not be trained teachers.

Protest at the Arizona state capital.
Protest at the Arizona state capital.

Arizona does have a teacher shortage, but the reasons are not difficult to fathom. First, it is a non-union state. There is an Arizona Education Association that acts as a lobby, but no right to collective bargaining and job actions are illegal. According to Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post, in Arizona over sixty percent of school districts had unfilled teaching positions three months into the 2013-2014 school year and almost 1,000 persons were working in schools as full-time teachers with substitute credentials. In some districts, substitutes are paid as little as $12.50 an hour. Writing in an Arizona Republic op-ed, retired teacher Mike McClellan, call Ducey’s plan the “Warm Body Law.”

A second reason for the teacher shortage is Arizona’s commitment to unregulated charter schools; the state is essentially charter school central. In Arizona, charter school “teachers” are exempt from state certification requirements. A Brookings Institute study found that in the 2012-13 school year almost a quarter of Arizona schools were charter schools and three times as many Arizona children attended charter schools as the national average. Arizona did not have in place procedures for evaluating the performance of its legion of charter schools, and state law initially allowed them to operate without review for fifteen years. However, Brookings found that charter school students generally performed no better than public school students on standardized exams and sometimes did worse. Since 2009, the Arizona Legislature has cut school district capital funding by 85% while it has increased charter school funds for capital purchases and facilities by 15%.

The main reason for the teacher shortage in Arizona is inadequate state funding for public education. A National Education Association report placed Arizona near the bottom in a list of state spending per student. In 2015-2016, the U.S. average per-student was $11,787. In Arizona it was $7,566.

Arizona’s elementary school teachers have the lowest average salaries in the United States, and adjusted for inflation, their real wages have declined by 14% since 2001. Secondary school teacher salaries trail every state but Idaho and South Dakota. Add to this, high teacher turnover, especially among poorly qualified “alt-cert” hires. Over forty percent 42 percent of Arizona teachers hired in 2013 quit within three years.

Low wages in a non-union state might not be so bad, except the cost-of-living in Arizona is as high as the temperature. It was 115 degrees in Tucson on June 18 and nearly 120 degrees in Phoenix where it was so hot they had to cancel some airplane flights. The Environmental Protection Administration in August 2016 predicted more severe drought in the region, increased drying out of soils, declines in agriculture, more and more severe forest fires, and expanding desertification. In 2011, Arizona had the largest forest fire in state history. Two years later, the Yarnell Hill Fire was its deadliest when 19 firefighters died.

If you decide Arizona is where you want to be, a trailer or studio apartment might be affordable, but the average rents for two and three-bedroom apartments are higher than average for the United States. And because of the extreme heat and constant need for air conditioning, utility and water bills are higher as well. Sales taxes and food prices are also above the national average.

Arizona is on path to become not only a geographic desert, but an educational desert as well.

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