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Can Arizona's Warm Weather Lure New Teacher Recruits From Colder Climates?

A staffing agency hired by Arizona school districts to tackle the state's severe teacher shortage is testing out a new recruiting strategy: Seek recent graduates in cold-weather states and sell them on moving to the sunny Southwest.

 "We have beautiful weather nine months of the year," said Phil Tavasci, president of Educational Services, Inc., the agency hired by Arizona districts to find qualified candidates to lead their classrooms. "It gets hot in the summer, but if you're born and raised in a state with treacherous weather, it might be nice to try out a different state."

Educational Services, Inc. staffs 150 districts in Arizona, but the new program to recruit recent education school graduates nationwide is only up and running in 20 districts so far. Back in June, the agency started what it calls a "flex teach" program, which would allow ed school graduates to try teaching in Arizona for a year to see how they like it.

The agency has hired four full-time recruiters who meet with soon-to-be ed school grads in Wisconsin, Kansas, Missouri, Michigan, and Minnesota, talking up teaching in a state with great weather most of the year. The agency also advertises nationally on Craigslist and other online platforms.

According to Tavasci, the agency doesn't necessarily focus on recruiting in hard-to-staff subjects like math and science. "Arizona has shortages in every subject, so we're really looking for the nation's best and brightest, whether that's a 2nd grade position or a high school math position," he said.

So far, the agency has recruited 30 new teachers. Next year, the goal is 300.

If everything goes well—the teacher likes the school and the school likes the teacher—then the staffing agency steps aside so the district can hire the teacher. But if the teacher is unhappy with the position, the staffing agency will place the candidate in another school in another state. "The ultimate goal is to find the right fit for the young teacher to come off contract with us and get hired with a school district," Tavasci said.

Tavasci is betting the strategy will work with young ed school graduates who he describes as more mobile than past generations, more willing to strike out on their own in a whole new city or state.

The weather notwithstanding, those heading to Arizona will have to forego big paychecks. The average starting teacher salary is just $31,874, according to the National Education Association. Low pay is one of the reasons for the teacher shortage in Arizona. According to a study by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association, there are more than 2,166 unfilled teacher jobs in the state, plus an additional 2, 221 classroom positions held by teachers lacking standard credentials.

Exacerbating the shortage is the fact that Arizona has one of the highest teacher turnover rates of any state, according to a September 2016 report by the Learning Policy Institute on the nationwide teacher shortage. And the situation isn't likely to get better any time soon, with 24 percent of the teacher force eligible to retire by June 2018 and current teachers fleeing the state.

Tackling the Shortage in the Long Term

For his part, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey isn't just relying on the state's weather to attract out-of-state teachers. His objective is to convince Arizona's current teachers to stay put, and to encourage young people in the state to consider the profession. Ducey laid out his plan in the State of the State address on January 9, calling for a pay raise for teachers. He also proposed a $1,000 signing bonus for those willing to commit to teaching in low-income schools, and an overhaul of the teacher certification process. (Check out this EdWeek article to find out how other states are addressing teacher shortages.)

Ducey decried in the address the fact that young teachers receiving low salaries have a hard time paying off student loans. So he called on Arizona's universities to create a teachers' academy to attract young people to the profession. "If you make that commitment," he said in the speech, "we'll make this commitment: your education will be paid for, a job will be waiting, and you will be free of debt."

Ducey's education plan comes on the heels of proposition 123, the ballot measure that will put $3.5 billion into schools over the next 10 years. The measure settled a lawsuit over the state's underfunding of schools during the Great Recession, according to azcentral.com.

While many Arizona lawmakers are optimistic about the governor's education plans, they wonder how he'll pay for the proposals considering his pledge to not raise taxes. Ducey, who submitted his budget four days after the address, insists the state's modest surplus will cover his plan.

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