By Amanda Litvinov
Thanks in large part to the #RedForEd movement, there has been a leap in awareness about just how poorly most U.S. teachers are paid.
Several governors have made it a priority in this legislative session to improve teacher pay in their states. Their actions are a welcome change after a decade of austerity for America’s public schools and educators.
In the past ten years, the national average teacher salary has decreased 4.5 percent when adjusted for inflation, according to the latest annual NEA Rankings and Estimates report.
Here are the facts on teacher pay in America:
- The 2017-18 average starting salary for teachers is $39,249. That’s lower than before the recession that started in December 2007.
- At least 63 percent of public school districts still offer a starting salary below $40,000.
- In more than 1,000 districts, even the highest paid teachers—most of whom hold advanced degrees and have decades of teaching experience—are paid less than $50,000.
- Nationally, teachers earn 23 percent less in wages than similarly educated and experienced workers when adjusted for inflation. That’s according to a recent Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report. The “teacher pay gap” reached a record high in 2018.
Lagging salaries mean financial stress, personal sacrifice, and second jobs have become the norm for many in the teaching profession.
“Educators don’t do this work to get rich, they do this work because they believe in students,” said elementary school teacher and NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “But their pay is not commensurate with the dedication and expertise they bring to the profession.”
Teacher pay is already an issue in the 2020 presidential election. Democratic candidate Kamala Harris released an ambitious plan to increase teachers’ base pay by 23 percent.
But any federal investment is still years away.
Here are some of the governors taking steps now to improve teacher pay in their states:
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed off just weeks ago on a state budget that invests significantly more in public school funding and educator pay.
All public school staff will receive a 6 percent pay boost; some teachers will receive more. Minimum teacher salaries will increase from $36,000 to $41,000 for starting teachers, and base pay will be set at $50,000 and $60,000 for those with higher certification.
Boosting teacher pay was a top priority that the first-term governor laid out in her January budget address. In the 2017-18 school year, New Mexico ranked 48th in average teacher pay.
NEA-New Mexico supported the governor’s push to improve educator pay and school funding, to “reverse the detrimental effects of the last administration’s policies,” wrote NEA-NM President Betty Patterson.
Those policies, Patterson continued, “succeeded in driving thousands of educators out of teaching and even more young people into thinking teaching would forever be low-paid and disrespected as a profession.”
Republican Gov. Brad Little signed a bill last month that will raise the state’s minimum starting teacher salary to $40,000 by 2020, delivering on a promise he made during his state-of-the-state address in January.
Gov. Little identified starting teacher pay as a priority because Idaho is experiencing a teacher shortage, and most surrounding states offer teachers significantly higher salaries.
Last year, Idaho ranked 44th in the nation on teacher pay.
The Idaho Education Association (IEA) says this is an important first step in building better teacher salaries in Idaho.
“We know that we’re losing early career educators every year and we know one of those reasons is pay,” IEA President Kari Overall said after Gov. Little unveiled his plan in January.
Gov. Tom Wolf wants to raise Pennsylvania’s minimum teacher salary to $45,000.
“Classroom teachers have too often been getting the short end of the stick,” Wolf said when he introduced the plan during his budget address on Feb. 5. “This could be a game-changer for our schools.”
Pennsylvania’s current minimum teacher salary of just $18,500 was set back in 1989. Educators agree with Gov. Wolf that it’s high time that figure is updated.
“Over the past 30 years, the teaching profession has gotten much more challenging, the student debt burden has exploded, and we’re facing a significant teacher shortage,” said music teacher Rich Askey, who currently serves as president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.
Gov. Wolf’s minimum teacher pay plan would help the state attract teachers to lower-paying rural areas and would also benefit some struggling urban districts.
A major piece of Gov. Janet Mills’ first budget is her plan to boost the minimum teacher salary from $30,000 per year to $40,000.
At $30,000 per year, Maine has the lowest starting salary for teachers in New England. That is “just not sufficient to attract kids to the profession, said Spanish teacher and Maine Education Association President Grace Leavitt in a local television interview.
“We have declining enrollment in our teacher prep programs, and we’ve had that for quite a while. We’ve been seeing these shortages already. We need to be doing more to address it,” Leavitt said.
The legislature is in session until June 19.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards has a multi-year plan to boost teacher salaries to the Southern regional average.
The first step is to boost teacher salaries by $1,000 this year, and increase pay for support professionals by $500. He said the teacher pay raise is his number one priority for this legislative session, which runs through June 6.
The Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE) supports the move as a step in the right direction.
The governor got to the heart of it during his speech “when he referenced teachers preparing our children for the future while struggling to provide for their own,” said LAE President Debbie Meaux. “It’s time for our legislators to follow the governor’s lead and commit to raising educators’ pay and increasing public education funding.”
It would be the first substantive pay raise for Louisiana teachers in more than five years. Louisiana currently ranks 39th in the U.S. for average teacher pay.
LAE also strongly supported Gov. Edwards’ work to empower local school boards to make decisions about local tax abatements that have cost the state’s schools about $600 million annually. Read more here.