By Maritza Cruz
Arizona is the sixth state in the country with the lowest annual mean wages offered to special education teachers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data from May 2016.
In Arizona, the annual mean wage for special education teachers is $47,340. However, teacher salary is based off years of service. A teacher working just out of college would receive a lower salary than a teacher with ten years experience.
Kindergarten and elementary school special education teachers are paid the least with an annual mean wage of $41,510 in Tucson. Middle school special educations teachers are paid about $43,180, and high school teachers are paid about $47,930.
The annual mean wage for special education teachers in Tucson is about $50,390 which is higher than the Arizona average. Cities like Riverside, California, and New York City have wages almost double at about $99,000.
Andrea Steele is a special education teacher at Miles Exploratory Learning School who works with deaf and hard of hearing students.
She said that it takes a lot for teachers in Arizona to reach a $47,000 salary.
“Here at TUSD, everybody comes at the same, because you have a special ed degree it does not put you at a different salary mark,” Steele said.
Wendy Collins is a UA senior majoring in speech, language and hearing sciences (SLHS) with a minor in psychology and special education.
Collins originally wanted to be a special education teacher until she learned about the SLHS major. Her ideal job is to work with early childhood intervention in a school setting and work with stroke patients at the hospital in the afternoon.
“I think it would make more sense for their wages to be higher because they have to have more qualifications and generally more schooling,” Collins said.
Steele moved to Tucson from Detroit, Michigan, where she made about $20,000 more annually. She said she noticed a difference in the mentality about the teaching profession in Tucson. The wages reflect how valued teachers are to the legislature and the community.
Steele has a ten years of teaching experience. After her fifth year, she pursued her master’s degree.
“Even with that higher level of degree, in both master’s, collegiate level work that I’ve done, the pay doesn’t nearly reflect our education,” Steele said.
She said there is not a shortage of teachers, but teachers are finding different professions where they are valued more.
Sunggye Hong, Ph.D., University of Arizona associate professor and program coordinator of visual impairment specialization, said Arizona should pay special education teachers a higher salary to recruit more people and to recruit people who are more talented.
Hong said his students are thinking of moving to California or Oregon. One of the reasons is to maximize their salary.
“If Arizona could afford to pay a little more salary it is likely that we’d be able to retain people in Arizona versus train them and send them to other states,” Hong said.
“This is my third year as a special ed teacher here in Arizona, and I’m already talking about possibly uprooting my family and moving back towards the east coast because I’ll make $20,000 just by moving,” Steele said.
In Michigan, Steele used to make extra money helping out at school activities after school. They would compensate any teacher for extra time spent after school hours. In her current job at Miles, she volunteers as a cafeteria monitor during lunch, but isn’t compensated.
“If I came in on my sixth day in any other nine to five job, the expectation would be that there’s money there,” Steele said. “Arizona doesn’t offer that to its teachers, that’s to be a little bit devaluing us, and it hurts the time that we have to build our relationships with our kids that aren’t just based off classroom work.”
Heather Dowdall, Northern Arizona University student majoring in elementary education, originally studied special education as a double major.
She said she chose special education to learn about inclusion and how to work with every student. She hopes to teach anywhere between first through fourth grade. Dowdall said the low wages do not deter her from a teaching career.
“If I’ve impacted a child’s life in a positive way, that’s worth a lot more to me than a salary,” Dowdall said. “I think that’s another reason that salary is so low, that teachers they care so much and they often times don’t speak up because they care about the kids.”
Dowdall said that Arizona can cut funding from the prison systems and give that money to education.
“The funding that’s cut first is always education which is really sad because that’s the key to a successful country,” Dowdall said.
Steele has a second source of income from her husband. She said she has student loans from graduate school and without a second source of income, she would not be able to live the lifestyle she wants.
Steele said she thinks the school districts are doing everything they can to pay teachers more money, but they have to work within a budget. She said change starts at legislation.
“The bottom line is, if we don’t have the people that are giving money to the school like the legislatures at the state level and at the federal level looking at education as a top priority, we’re just not going to get the funding,” Steele said.
To access the Bureau of Labor Statistics mapping database, visit their website at https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/map_changer.htm.