Coconino County Superintendent of Schools Tackles Teacher Housing Initiatives to Address Arizona's Teacher Pay Gap and Retention Crisis

By Cheryl Mango-Paget, Coconino County Superintendent of Schools

In the late 1880s, a small cabin in Pleasant Valley, east of Payson, AZ, was dedicated as a home for teachers in a community ahead of its time. The concept of a "teacherage" was born. This teacherage concept laid the groundwork for teacher housing initiatives in the state of Arizona, where today, it's seen as an essential measure to address a growing teacher retention crisis and a staggering teacher pay gap.


Arizona's Alarming Teacher Pay Gap

Arizona's teacher pay gap has been making headlines as the second largest in the nation, surpassed only by Colorado, according to a recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). In 2022, Arizona teachers earned a staggering 33% less than their peers in comparable professions, marking the worst pay gap since 1960. This alarming disparity affects more than just the educators themselves; it affects the quality of education.

The situation has deteriorated in the past two years, leading to a recruitment emergency. The Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association revealed in September that nearly 6,000 classrooms in the state, serving more than 150,000 students, are without a qualified teacher. Coconino County schools are also struggling to retain and recruit educators. As the EPI report highlights, the consequences of this crisis are driving teachers out of the classroom, creating a vicious cycle that puts student success at risk.


Teacher Housing: A Critical Factor for Student Success

Many school leaders, governing board members, district superintendents, and charter directors agree that the biggest and most pressing issue complicating their ability to educate children is “finding and retaining highly qualified staff.” The entire concept of “recruiting and retaining staff” is the single biggest issue facing Coconino County schools today. Many Coconino County schools are recruiting educators from outside of the country to ensure classrooms are staffed. These educators are typically on three-year Visas. Over time, students in high-turnover districts are often taught by less experienced, less qualified teachers. That has a cumulative impact — especially when research shows that teachers have a bigger influence on student achievement than any other school-based factor.

Attracting and retaining excellent teachers is one of the most important factors for student success and well-being. However, teacher shortages and a lack of resources can make finding, nurturing, and retaining top talent difficult. 


The Housing Dilemma

One of the contributing factors to the teacher retention crisis is the lack of attainable housing for educators. As housing prices have increased in Coconino County, many teachers are finding it harder to afford to live in the communities in which they teach. Teacher salaries are not keeping up with the rising cost of living. These challenges contribute to widespread teacher turnover, which has negative effects on students. Teachers are getting second jobs, moving in with many roommates, moving out of the communities where they teach to areas with lower housing costs, or leaving the profession altogether. The combination of low teacher salaries, unaffordable rent prices, and the struggle school districts face in attracting and retaining personnel underscores the urgency of addressing the housing issue. How do you buy a $650,000 house when you get paid $43,000 a year? Coconino County teachers have no idea.

In Coconino County, rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $2,700.00. In Page and Flagstaff, there is a housing shortage due to the increase in vacation rentals by owners and investment properties. The median home price in Flagstaff is $760,000.00 and in Page, it is $235,000.00. Both communities, besides lacking affordability, have a housing shortage. Current educator salaries are not enough to afford buying a home even if housing would become available.


Proposed Solutions

There are several proposed solutions to this problem. One suggestion is to incorporate attainable housing into the benefit package offered to prospective teachers. Another option involves repurposing school-owned land for attainable housing projects.

The joint efforts of the Coconino County Education Service Agency and Yavapai County Education Service Agency are aiming to tackle this problem head-on. These agencies developed a grant proposal to the Arizona Department of Education, aiming to provide affordable and attainable housing for teachers in their communities. The awarded Teacherage proposal allowed the Coconino and Yavapai County Education Service Agencies to award funds to districts who submitted a proposal for teacherage that addressed teacher retention. Coconino County school districts who developed proposals and were awarded include Page Unified School District, Grand Canyon Unified School District, Fredonia-Moccasin Unified School District, and Tuba City Unified School District. Total awarded dollars for Teacherage were $4,105,845.00.


A Multifaceted Approach to Teacher Housing Initiatives

Teacher housing initiatives are multifaceted, with a range of solutions, including tiny homes, mobile modular homes, apartments, condos, and public-private partnerships. The idea behind these initiatives is to provide reasonable, affordable, and attainable housing options for educators, supporting both teacher recruitment and retention efforts.

In a landscape in which attracting and retaining excellent teachers is paramount for student success and well-being, addressing the teacher pay gap and housing issues have become priorities for the Coconino County Education Service Agency. The teacherage concept born in the late 1800s may be a progressive idea, but it's more relevant than ever in the 21st century, as communities strive to ensure their children have access to quality education, supported by dedicated and motivated teachers.