Arizona Considers College Scholarship For Science Teachers

Published: Monday, April 8, 2019 - 1:09pm
Updated: Wednesday, April 10, 2019 - 5:18pm
Supported by Palo Verde Generating Station

National science educators are watching what Arizona lawmakers do over the next few weeks with a bill that could help fill a critical teacher shortage.

A proposal is underway that would allow teachers with bachelor's degrees an opportunity to go back to school to become certified science teachers.

Pinnacle High School physics teacher Mike Vargas noticed Arizona had a problem several years ago.

"The numbers are pretty dire, there's only 159 physics teachers, around 500 chemistry teachers and 2,500 biology teachers left in this state," he warned.

At the nation's top engineering colleges, like Brigham Young University, he noticed barely more than a dozen physics teachers graduated each year, and far fewer at Arizona's three universities combined. And, when they do gradate, he said it is rare for the graduate to go into teaching.

Upon graduation, he imagines most classmates ask, "Why, if I have a physics Ph.D. or physics major, do I really want to go teach for lousy pay and harsh working conditions? When I can go and work for Grumman or Lockheed Martin or one of these other big companies in Arizona and make triple or quadruple [the income] and work half the hours?"

The few physics grads who do teach, when added to the few thousand certified chemistry and biology teachers in Arizona face an overwhelming student-teach ratio.

"They basically have one teacher for every 2,000 students, plus," Vargas told state lawmakers in 2017.

He found an ally in Sen. Sylvia Allen as he explained the crisis of hiring and retaining certified science teachers.

"The only people that you're going to get to teach those classes are people that are already teaching," he said. "And, the biggest hurdle for them is you got to take expensive graduate level classes."

"He laid it out. He had a PowerPoint presentation. He was just a great citizen," the senator said. "He was just a great citizen. This is what we need. We need our citizens that get involved to come with solutions and ideas and so I really appreciate him."

That year, she shepherded a bill offering teachers with a bachelor of science degree a $3,000 scholarship to go for a master's or Ph.D.

"We had 150 teachers apply," Allen said, "and that's why I was able to go back to my colleagues and say, 'We need to appropriate more money for three more years.'"

The new bill has sailed through committees with bi-partisan support from lawmakers as well as support from the national science community.

"The National Physics Association had me come back to one of their gatherings and talk about this program," Allen said, "and they got very excited and are pushing this concept in other states."

This year's bill proposes a couple changes for Arizona public school teachers who already have a bachelor of science.

"We will offer you a $2,000 mini scholarship to get you three graduate credits at ASU to at least get you started," Vargas said.

So long as the newly certified scientists return to Arizona classrooms to teach for three years.

The new bill currently sits in the Senate Rules Committee waiting for a vote before it can head to the full Senate floor.

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