Valley charter schools represent best, worst for teacher salaries

Where do some teachers flock to receive zero tenure and the risk of being dumped due to low test scores?

Arizona charter schools.

For many, the difference lies not only in the classroom but in the paycheck.

In March, a joint report between the National Center for Policy Analysis and the Children’s Educational Opportunity of America found that in Arizona, newly hired charter school teachers earn an average of 6 percent more than their public school counterparts.

In the Verde Valley, the average starting salary for beginning teachers is $22,026.

Now in its fourth year, the charter school movement is booming throughout the state. Currently, 271 charter schools are in operation with six open for business in the Verde Valley.

American Heritage Academy in Clarkdale offers its teachers a starting salary of $26,000, more than 15 percent above traditional public schools in the Verde Valley.

It’s not alone. Other area charters offer an attractive alternative for teachers seeking employment.

At Pathways Charter High School in Clarkdale, the average teacher’s salary is $28,700.

“If I had my druthers, my teachers would be the highest paid in the Verde Valley,” says Steve Anderson, administrator of American Heritage Academy. “The most critical thing we have to do is teach our children.”

While teachers may agree, most contend that dollars don’t dictate career decisions.

“Teaching is an act of love and passion for kids,” Pathways teacher Marisa Miller explains. “It’s the last field to be in for financial reasons.”

Some educators obviously agree. They continue to teach at charter schools that can’t yet offer competitive wages.

At Accelerated Learning Charter School in Clarkdale, two certified teachers earn just over $10,000 per year while five teachers at Chester Newton Charter and Montessori School in Camp Verde average $17,500.

The disparity in salaries between charter schools sometimes starts at the beginning.

“When a charter school gets started the money is going to purchase capital items, instructional supplies,” says Baltazar Lozano, the administrator for Chester Newton Charter and Montessori School. “Starting salaries are smaller.”

But some charter schools like AHA say they just get more for the buck.

“We buy used vans, used books,” Anderson explains. “We don’t buy new. I don’t understand that philosophy.”

Although public school districts may offer nicer facilities and newer teaching materials, it’s the flexibility in the classroom and inclusiveness in the process for setting curriculum that appeals to teachers considering a career in charter schools.

“Those straight out of college look at salary and benefits but there is an incentive in being allowed more creative opportunities in the classroom at a charter school,” says Cassandra Larsen, a former teacher and current director of the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools.

But creativity in any academic environment must eventually paint a picture that shows off results. A survey of the majority of Arizona charter schools discovered student performance incentives in 16 percent of charter school teacher contracts. It also found that charter teachers have no tenure, work under yearly renewed contracts and are at risk for dismissal if student achievement isn’t noted by the school’s administration.

“We have a small financial incentive if teachers perform,” explains American Heritage’s Anderson.

“Also, if my parents aren’t happy, they take their kids out of school and then I can’t make any money to pay my teachers or my rent.”

At Chester Newton Charter and Montessori School, test scores are also an indicator of academic performance and teacher assessments.

“Teacher contracts are based on teacher evaluations including student performance,” said Lozano. “But we primarily use test scores to help us determine where we might be weak, what areas we need to address and strengthen.”

Researchers contend that teacher quality is the crucial variable in determining improvement in student performance. William Sanders of the University of Tennessee has discovered that teacher quality can add as many as 50 percentile points to student test scores.


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