Arizona Teacher Pay Frustration is Genuine but Misdirected

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

A 7-year veteran teacher teaching in Arizona’s Paradise Valley Unified School District has created a social media firestorm by posting her pay stub on social media- $35,621. Before writing anything else, I like anyone else want to pay dedicated teachers much better than this. Teacher compensation decisions however are made at the district/campus level, and an examination of PVUSD finances just makes things look worse. Much worse.

The Arizona Auditor General reports on district finances. Paradise Valley received total revenue of $10,143 per pupil in 2017. This figure is above the state-wide average.  A class of 30 students produces over $300,000 in revenue. Even with benefit costs included, teacher compensation will not even sniff 20% of the revenue generated by this class of 30. Where did the rest of the money go?

This chart from the Heritage Foundation tracks national data, and provides a big part of the answer- American schools have seen a vast increase in the hiring of non-teachers. This is not to say that any school can ever do without non-teachers, but at one point we had 2 teachers for every non-teacher in American schools. These days it looks more like 1 to 1. Despite a substantial increase in inflation adjusted spending per pupil since the 2-1 days, the large increase in non-teaching staff places a limit on teacher salaries.

Ms. Milich works for a district that receives over $10,000 per pupil in revenue. That district has both an elected school board and a chapter of the Arizona Education Association that is very active in the politics of the district. A teacher with seven years under her belt getting paid $35,000 does not suggest that either the district or the association has been placing a priority on teacher compensation.

Impossible? Just take another look at the chart. American schools have spent decades placing a priority on increasing school district employment, with a much stronger focus on non-teachers. What we refer to as “teacher unions” are actually “school district employee unions” and just as a quick mental exercise close your eyes and ask yourself: do you think the chart above would look that way if the NEA and AFT opposed these trends? What if they had been supporting them for decades?

Ok open your eyes now. Get it? Good.

This teacher has every right to feel frustrated. I hope the district decides to compensate her in a fashion commensurate with her contribution to her school. I strongly suspect that contribution is far greater than a low double digit percentage of the revenue her class generates.

Yes state spending and taxing decisions also play into this- but we should never forget that Arizona is not a wealthy state, has an unusually small working age population, and decides on school funding levels through direct and indirect democracy. In 2012 statewide voters declined to raise taxes for schools in Prop. 204 by a very wide margin. A few years ago voters (very narrowly) chose to increase school funding by increasing the payout rate from state land trust.

The lopsided loss in Prop. 204 and the narrow margin on the Prop. 123 vote both relate to a deep skepticism on the part of the public that increased funding will reach teachers like this one. This skeptical attitude is entirely justified. For instance, between fiscal year 2016 and 2017 per pupil revenue increased in PVUSD by $664 per pupil (from $9,497 to $10,143) and this teacher received a raise of $131.25 and this was after completing professional development.

Arizona voters decide school funding democratically, and they will have the opportunity to increase funding again in the future. Under the current district setup, the bucket looks to have multiple large leaks if the aim is to increase teacher compensation. Some of my tribe on the center right here in Arizona tends to think that these spontaneous teacher protest movements are secretly the work of the Arizona Education Association. I don’t believe this is the case. Although much of this frustration is misdirected at choice programs, things like this social media paystub are indicators of genuinely felt grievances.

It would be a huge mistake however to continue avoiding questions about district priorities.


19 Responses to Arizona Teacher Pay Frustration is Genuine but Misdirected

  1. Michael J. Norton says:

    You focused on a critical issue. The use of proceeds by each District varies dramatically. With the worst of its peers, of course, being PVUSD’s sister District to the East, Scottsdale Unified. Every school – Public – Private – Charter – should be held accountable by its constituents for minimizing non-classroom spending.

    PVUSD is not doing a bad job. It has held its Classroom Spending at 56+ % throughout tough economic cycles. It does not pay its Teachers as well as it would like (Dr. Lee should be interviewed on that topic before you beat him up on the issue).

    PVUSD has also maintained a strong Teacher:Non-Teacher ratio. Something SUSD abysmally

    Matt, normally I admire your non-biased analysis of data and facts. This time you disappoint. The burgeoning Non-Teacher staff of public schools is, in large part, due to the unfunded mandates from the State and Federal government.

    Consider only Special Education. Special Education kids received little attention or care from anyone through the 80’s and early 90’s. But as the Nation realized that we must address our SPED kids’ needs, the decision was made to drop that burden on Public Schools. Over the last two decades the duties and burdens of public schools have been expanded to include solving Poverty, Nutritional needs, English Language Learners, and a rapidly expanding series of learning disabilities and emotional issues. The massive growth in Autism alone has created a burden on – for the most part – Public Schools.

    Let’s also be honest about the Budgets. Dollars are not Dollars. They’re not fungible. Deseg Funds can be used only for specific items. Same with Title I and Capital funds and a myriad of other purposes delineated by the State and Federal government.

    So telling readers that there’s $10,000 available per student and hinting that it’s PVUSD’s fault that it can’t carve out more for a General Education Elementary School Teacher is misleading – at best.

    COULD Public Schools do better? Yes (especially SUSD which seems to be clueless about the Admin overhead bloat it has created). Particularly when it comes to Capacity Management.

    The bullheaded – wrongheaded – unthinking Capital Appropriations in Arizona for Buildings are a detriment to the entire State. It is ludicrous for Public School Districts to waste funds operating marginally full campuses solely for the purpose of keeping them out of the hands of Charters and Privates.

    We also must look at the wisdom (lack thereof) of letting Charters use Taxpayer Funds to construct, payoff, and keep huge buildings that are paid for with more dollars that should be spent in the Classroom rather than on construction bonds.

    Taxpayers already own enough schools throughout this State to educate every student who lives within our borders. Yet we keep building more schools.

    Absurd use of funds. Funds that could and should be redirected to the classrooms for more Teachers AND better pay for Teachers.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    While we’re discussing how much of this can really be controlled at the building or district level, let’s not forget about union contracts, which require teachers to get paid on the same uniform one-size-fits-all system as factory workers, rather than getting paid like professionals.

    • Michael J Norton says:

      If Unions , which don’t exist, had power, which they don’t, they would expand the pie.

      Since our Teachers Associations are toothless they divide the shrinking pie

  3. MatthewLadner says:


    I am aware that there are funds that can’t be used for teacher salaries, but 12% of revenues going to salary? Bad look. Also not necessarily beating up on Lee because I’m aware of who owns the school board.

    In sped, consider the following from Jay:

    • Michael J. Norton says:

      You’re way way off on your % of Revenue Budget analysis.

      Teacher Pay is about 42% of all Operating Funds for SUSD. Not 12%. The District needs to be beat up for only passing 20% of the M&O Override funds through to Teachers, but they’re not guilty of the 12% sum you quote.

      • matthewladner says:


        I am referencing the specific PVUSD teacher here using the average revenue per pupil from the Auditor General’s Report and assuming 30 students in her classroom.

      • Michael J. Norton says:

        It’s easy to make some invalid conclusions trying to back in to spending ratios, Matt. I did the same thing before I found the hard data while I was a Budget Committee member.

        It gets even harder to determine the real spend rate when you break the budgets down school by school. The impact of additional funding for ELL, Deseg, SPED, etc., drives the equations all wonky if you try to compare schools with different demographics.

        Within SUSD there are schools averaging well over $11,000 of M&O funds per student per year. Tavan Elementary is an example. Its 700+ kids generate over $8,000.000 of revenue to the District.

        SUSD’s miserly treatment of Tavan is a crime against humanity. A superb Principal is forced to get by with not more than 30% of the funds her students generate through their attendance. And the District has the gall to cut her Deseg funded ELL instructors, etc.

        Why? Because SUSD blows mountains of money on low attendance schools and/or absurdly fat Admin staffing at both District and School levels. Consider Desert Canyon E.S. and M.S. Sitting side by side on the campus. With a common office building. But SUSD DOUBLES the Site Based Admin as though there are two schools there. And dumps far more Teachers per student in to the D.C. campuses than comparable K-8’s.

        Do yourself a favor and compare the AZ Dept of Ed Staffing reports for the Desert Canyon and Copper Ridge campuses to the Cheyenne Traditional School Campus.

        Cheyenne has 1,000 students. But it’s staffed like it has 500.

        I can go on forever. I’ll stop. This is not the format for a budget discussion. Someday, Matt, we share coffee and hard data on SUSD Budget decisions. You’ll have some great material and a real reason to rant.

      • matthewladner says:

        Mike- I’d love to meet for coffee sometime. An examination of the Auditor General report quickly reveals districts that spend far less per pupil than this one but have significantly higher average teacher salaries. There are no doubt many different factors that could explain this but in the end it is a question of priorities.

  4. Ann in L.A. says:

    Paychecks often do not reflect total compensation. Teachers often have among the best heath insurance and pension plans around, as well as long-term disability and leave of absence policies which are valuable perks (especially to young women teachers who want to take a semester off to have a baby.) Count those in and compare teachers to comparable jobs and see where they stand.

    Then there is the chance to pick up a full time job for 2 months in the summer. I know a lot of teachers who teach at academic summer camps, and some of the teachers from my high school had a house painting business in the summer. Many schools have a 180-day calendar, whereas other jobs will be over 230 days (with 4 weeks off) a year. Getting the summer months off is also a valuable perk, especially if you have young children who would need expensive daycare or day camp if the parents are at work in the summer.

    Then there is tenure, which makes the chance of being fired minimal.

    • Michael J. Norton says:

      The “Summer Job” and “Great Benefits” myths need to be killed right now and die forever. The Summer Job option simply DOES NOT EXIST.

      School now ends a week in to June. Teachers are required to report back for Mid-July for a week of Training. They then report to schools the last week of July for start of school the first week of August.

      It is difficult to do anything other than drive for Uber or deliver McDonald’s meals during the jacked up work periods.

      And as for Benefits, the cost of Benefits has risen to the point that Net Take Home Pay, less Benefits Costs, less Student Loans\, less Day Care means that a mother of two children takes home nothing from a 0-10 Year Tenured Teacher with no Masters Degree.

      I am not a Teacher. I am not a supporter of the Teacher Associations in this State. I am an informed former member of the Budget Committee of my School District and current elected representative to the Site Council for my children’s school.

  5. Patricia Bryant says:

    I am a teacher with 4 certificates. Early Childhood Special Education, Special Education-Cross Categorical, General Education K-8, English Second Language, a masters in Special Education and one in Early Childhood Education both with highest distinction, candidate for PhD in Educational Psychology to pair with my BA in Clinical Psychology and I have over 1800 professional development hours with 15 years of teaching in the USA and working 2 years for USAID in setting up Special Needs Directorate in Malawi 🇲🇼 and graduate teacher in a university in Malawi and one here in Phoenix.
    Salary: $38,000

    • Michael J. Norton says:

      Over the last 10 days, SUSD Teachers have sent me their real pay stubs. Absolutely ZERO Teachers who started in the last 10 years achieved $40,000 annual pay without also getting a Masters.

      Absolutely ZERO teachers who got a Masters are cash flow positive from that investment.

      Absolutely ZERO teachers who became teachers in the last 10 years say they would ever choose the career if financial logic was the primary issue.

      • matthewladner says:


        How much of that sad reality to do you attribute to decisions made by SUSD, and how much of it to the state?

    • matthewladner says:


      You have my sympathies. Unless someone wants to address the priorities of school districts, the only reasonable conclusion to draw is that very little additional revenue will reach teachers. For instance, the person who posted her paystub on social media works for a district that passed an override in 2017 “for teachers.” The district spends above the statewide average per pupil, her class is generating a large amount of revenue. If her district decides to prioritize items other than teacher compensation, that is a decision that must be challenged at the district level.

      • Greg Forster says:

        Now that’s just crazy talk. Everyone knows future spending increases are never squandered by the bureaucracy; it’s only past spending increases (all of them) that are squandered by the bureaucracy.

        Do try to keep up!

  6. Michael J. Norton says:

    Failure to pay Teachers is 2 Parts State Funding and 1 Part District Budgeting decisions. As SUSD is proving, Matt, the ability of SUSD to waste funds should never be underestimated.

    But even with superb budget skills and highly efficient management systems, Teachers will still not be paid sufficiently.

    By my estimate, SUSD Teachers would be paid $6,000 more per Teacher if the District was not so absurdly wasteful. That would be a GREAT start. But not enough.

    • matthewladner says:

      Six thousand sounds plausible to me and would move the average into the mid 50s. The $3.8m that the auditor general identified in empty space costs alone would be enough to pay for approximately a $3,000 per teacher raise according to the back of my napkin.

      • Mike Norton says:

        I get brutalized for saying this, Matt, but here goes. (I’m used to it.). SUSD like many Districts badly needs to bite the bullet and consolidate. There are 13-15 Non-Teacher staff at every campus whether 350 kids or 1,000 attend. Combining 5 schools in to 3, hiring MORE teachers in the combined schools, and erasing the duplicated overhead staffs at each school (along with the assigned buses) is a great first step.

        With Scottsdale Prep opening 680 desks next year and BASIS opening 3 new campuses on the border or within the boundary of SUSD, it is time to make real plans to consolidate.

        Consolidating also generates revenue if the District leases out the properties it no longer uses. To date, the Boards have done a miserable job of generating income from their Monopoly Holdings. But it could be done if there were competent and honest people on the Board.

  7. […] Ladner, senior adviser for policy and research for the Foundation for Excellence in Education noted recently, “A class of 30 students produces over $300,000 in revenue. Even with benefit costs included, […]

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