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Teacher salaries: is there a fair salary on the horizon?

 

For decades, teachers have lamented the meager wages, often taking more than one job to make ends meet.

But lately there have been pockets of support. As states grapple with a shortage of teachers and fewer people taking to the field, compensation often rises to the top of the list of concerns. Last year, governors from Florida to New Mexico worked with legislatures to raise educator salaries. And at the end of the last session of Congress, Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Democrat and former teacher from Florida, introduced the American Teachers Act.

Why did we write this?

The need to attract and retain teachers has prompted some US states to allocate more money for salaries. Now the federal government will consider the question: what is a fair wage?

Designed as a four-year federal grant program, the bill is due to be resubmitted to Congress on Wednesday and will help states raise teacher starting salaries to $60,000. While it faces an uphill battle, the proposal has helped resurrect long-standing questions: what is a fair wage for teachers? And can educators and lawyers attract legislators with higher salaries?

Cleaning houses after work helps Dorin Mote top up his bank account, but it also means the Las Vegas teacher can spend less time with his kids.

“No one has to work so hard to get a vacation,” says an army veteran. “No one should work so hard…to afford something like a handbag, or go to a concert, or whatever.”

On her first day after winter break, Doreen Mota leaves her Las Vegas charter school where she works as a literacy strategist and goes to her second job cleaning houses.

The side business he and his wife run generates cash flow to support discretionary spending. This January evening, his wife cleans one house alone, they do two together, and they hire people to clean two more. This earns them about $350.

That extra cash was especially helpful during last month’s costly holiday season.

Why did we write this?

The need to attract and retain teachers has prompted some US states to allocate more money for salaries. Now the federal government will consider the question: what is a fair wage?

“If I didn’t have it, I don’t know if I could give my children anything, to be honest,” Mr. Mota says.

For decades, teachers have lamented the meager wages, giving way to promises and debate during the campaign, in state legislatures, and in the corridors of Congress. There were pockets of success along the way. Last year, governors from Florida to New Mexico worked with state legislatures to raise teacher salaries.

Then, in the closing days of the last session of Congress, the conversation took a new turn: teacher-turned-Congresswoman Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat, introduced the American Teachers Act.

Designed as a four-year federal grant program, the bill, due back in Congress on Wednesday, would help states raise starting teachers’ salaries to $60,000, boost veteran teachers’ salaries and make inflation-related cost-of-living adjustments. .

However, this uphill-fighting proposal resurfaces long-standing questions that have simmered and erupted into protests and strikes from time to time: what is a fair salary for teachers? And can educators and lawyers attract legislators with higher salaries?

As states grapple with a shortage of teachers and fewer people taking to the field, compensation often rises to the top of the list of concerns.

“That’s question number one,” says Sanford Johnson, executive director of Teach Plus Mississippi, the national policy organization’s affiliate. “In the conversations we have with teachers, and in the conversations we have with people who you know are aspiring teachers, many teachers say they no longer see the profession as something sustainable.”

Rep. Frederica Wilson listens to a presentation on sea level rise on June 28, 2022 in Miami. Congresswoman, Democrat and former teacher from Florida plans to re-enact the American Teachers Act on January 25, 2023. The bill will pave the way for higher wages for teachers.

Starting Point: $60,000

In the 2020-2021 school year, new teachers entering the workforce received an average starting salary of $41,770, according to the National Education Association. That same year, the union set the median salary for public school teachers—regardless of experience—at $65,293.

The base salary proposed in Rep. Wilson’s bill represents a substantial increase from a typical starting salary, but she believes the figure could be bipartisan, says Carole Molinares, Ms. Wilson’s spokeswoman.

“The Congresswoman likes to say that, you know, it’s not the ceiling, it’s the floor,” Ms. Molinares says, describing the $60,000 pick.

Representative Wilson plans to resubmit the bill — the first of its kind at the federal level — to the 118th Congress on Jan. 25. The bill has already received more than 60 approvals, including from both major teachers’ unions, the National Parent Committee and two former education secretaries Arne Duncan and John B. King Jr.

All public school teachers, including those who work in publicly funded charter schools, will be eligible for pay increases, Ms. Molinares said. The original bill targets the 2024-25 school year as the start date.

Even though Representative Wilson and the original bill’s eight co-sponsors are Democrats, supporters say they see an opportunity to support Republicans given the teacher shortage and broad public support for raising educators’ incomes.

Researchers at Kansas State University and the University of Illinois-Champaign released a report in August estimating that there are at least 36,500 teaching vacancies nationwide, accounting for nearly 1.7% of positions. In addition, 163,000 unlicensed people help fill these positions.

This means that potentially millions of students do not have a qualified teacher to guide their class every day – a problem that some experts are worried about could get worse in the coming years.

Lunchtime picket of teachers and staff outside Northgate Elementary School in Seattle on the third day of the Seattle Education Association strike on September 9, 2022. Recent strikes such as this one often include wage debates.

Mississippi, long at the bottom of the teacher pay scale, was one of the states that began raising wages last year. Magnolia State legislators passed a bill signed by Republican Gov. Tate Reeves that increased teachers’ average allowance by $5,100 and increased salaries throughout a teacher’s career. It also increased the teacher’s starting salary to $41,500 from $37,000.

Mr. Johnson says his Teach Plus Mississippi and other advocacy groups and allies have drawn on educators’ personal stories to help their cause. The teachers submitted affidavits to the Legislative Assembly and launched a social media campaign to share their experiences.

Among them was Crystal Jackson, a special education teacher in the Vicksburg-Warren School District, near the state’s western border with Louisiana. She works as a bartender and waitress once or twice a week. Many of her colleagues also have second jobs, she said, whether in regular business or thanks to gig economy opportunities like DoorDash.

Ms. Jackson believes the outreach, especially on social media, has galvanized state lawmakers into action.

“I think the more voices you have about something and the more attention you get in the state, the more it sounds like, ‘Oh, we have to do this,’” she says.

The raise increased her annual salary to around $50,000, which she describes as a more affordable salary. She no longer works at her second job every weekend.

Ms. Jackson, who has a master’s degree, says she’s grateful for the promotion. But when asked what she thinks is a fair salary for teachers, she hesitates. This is the most she has ever done.

“I don’t think we value teachers as much as we say, because they are still some of the lowest paid professionals we see in the workforce across the US,” she says.

A report from the Economic Policy Institute confirms her assertion. Depending on where they live, teachers in the United States receive 3.4% to 35.9% less weekly wages than their college-educated peers. In 28 states, this figure, known as the wage penalty, exceeds 20%. The benefits somewhat offset the reality of the pay, but it’s not enough to level the playing field. The report found that the total fine for teacher compensation increased by 11.5 percentage points from 1993 to 2021.

“Is that possible?”

Despite the festive atmosphere surrounding last year’s Mississippi pay raise, Mr. Johnson is taking a pragmatic approach. He says that can’t be the end point, although he wonders if the political will exists to jump to $60,000, as the federal bill seeks to do.

“Now we are in a divided Congress,” he says. “Is that possible?”

With the Republican-led House of Representatives now threatening to fight the White House over raising the debt ceiling to pay off existing US debt, the fate of new spending is largely up in the air. And on top of that, there have been concerns about the ability of states to keep up wage increases as the federal funding runway runs out.

The proposed grant program in the bill is essentially bridge funding, says Ellen Sherratt, board president of The Teacher Salary Project, the non-partisan organization that contributed.

The goal is to get states to “consider how they spend their money and how they can move funds around to support a schedule of significantly higher teacher salaries,” she says.

She acknowledges that the federal effort is far from the finish line. This is a permissive bill that, if passed, will become an appropriation bill with a price tag attached. She hopes parents, teachers, legislators and influencers such as celebrities and professional athletes will rally around the proposed legislation, which will provide momentum for faster pay growth.

“We tried and tried, and the states succeeded to some extent,” Ms. Sherratt says. “But the increase that we’re seeing in places like Mississippi, Alabama and elsewhere – it’s still pretty modest.”

Mr. Mota, an Army veteran, finally passed the $60,000 mark about two years ago when he moved out of a traditional public school. His increased salary at Odyssey Charter School usually covers the bills but leaves little room for any extras.

Earlier in his career, he combined teaching elementary school students, tutoring after school, and working as an adjunct professor at a community college to make ends meet. Now cleaning helps his bank account, but it also means he spends less time with the kids, who sometimes ask why he’s so busy or tired.

“No one has to work so hard to get a vacation,” he says. “No one should work so hard…to afford something like a handbag, or go to a concert, or whatever.”

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