Originally published by The 19th

Long hours. Low morale. Little pay. These are just some of the reasons researchers say that many states face a teacher shortage that the Great Recession ushered in over 15 years ago and the pandemic only made worse. To retain and recruit teachers, politicians in red and blue states have raised teacher salaries throughout the COVID-19 crisis, and national lawmakers are addressing the problem, too. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont on Thursday introduced the Pay Teachers Act, legislation that would guarantee public school teachers annual salaries of at least $60,000 that would increase as their careers progress.

“Wages for public school teachers are so low that in 36 states, the average public school teacher with a family of four qualifies for food stamps, public housing and other government assistance programs,” said Sanders, chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, in a statement. “If we are going to have the best public school system in the world, we have got to radically change our attitude toward education and make sure that every teacher in America receives the compensation that they deserve for the enormously important and difficult work that they do.”

Sanders noted that more than half of public schools have reported staffing shortages, though some states struggle with the problem more than others. In the fall, the marketing firm Scholaroo identified Florida, Oregon, California, Nevada and Hawaii as the states with the greatest educator shortages, and North Dakota, Nebraska, Vermont, New Jersey and Wyoming as those with the least. Exacerbating the problem, Sanders said, is that 43 percent of teachers make less than $60,000 annually, with teacher wages stagnant for decades. A 2022 Economic Policy Institute report found that inflation-adjusted average weekly wages of public school teachers only rose $29 from 1996 to 2021, while wages for other college graduates during the same period rose by $445. Overall, teachers, 76 percent of whom are women, earn 23.5 percent less than comparable college graduates, according to the EPI, a nonprofit think tank that conducts economic research. 

Increasingly, teachers are turning to the gig economy to make ends meet.

Additional EPI research concluded that the national teacher shortage does not stem from a lack of qualified teachers but from “a lack of qualified teachers willing to work in what has long been a highly stressful job for compensation that is well below what is available to college-educated workers in other professions.”

Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association (NEA), a labor union representing more than 3 million educators and school personnel, called the educator shortages schools are facing “a five-alarm crisis.”

“Together, we must recruit large numbers of diverse educators into the profession and retain qualified and experienced educators in our schools to support our students in learning recovery and thriving in today’s world,” she said in a statement. “To do that, we must have competitive career-based pay to recruit and retain educators.”

Increasingly, teachers are turning to the gig economy to make ends meet. A 2022 Airbnb report found that teachers earned $276 million as hosts on the platform the prior year, with teachers in California alone earning $43 million. More than a quarter of teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, work second jobs, a 2022 report from the teachers union found. And about 1 in 5 teachers nationally work a supplemental job.

“Even with their need to take second jobs, educators spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on supplies, snacks, books and other items for students,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of largest educator unions. Along with NEA, that organization is one of more than 50 supporting the Pay Teachers Act.

As Sanders introduces legislation to raise teacher pay, the Association of American Educators (AAE) — a nonunion professional association representing educators in every state — is calling upon Congress to raise the existing Educator Expense Deduction from $300 to $1,000 to better reflect how much educators spend on out-of-pocket classroom and living expenses. The IRS allows educators to deduct expenses related to professional development, classroom materials and other supplemental equipment. In 2022, the IRS increased the deduction cap for educator expenses from $250 to $300, an amount that does not represent the cost of inflation, according to the AAE. The National Education Association reports that teachers spend about $500 of their own money on classroom expenses each year, but cited an estimate from a different organization projecting that teachers would spend $820 of their own money on such expenses during the 2022-23 school year.

To improve their pay, benefits and working conditions, teachers in several big cities — Seattle, Sacramento, Columbus and Minneapolis — went on strike last year. Los Angeles Unified School District personnel authorized a strike in February with plans to walk out of schools imminent. Many of these educators say they cannot afford to live in the communities where they work. 

As well as giving teachers a minimum $60,000 annual salary, the Pay Teachers Act would route more federal funding to educators and public schools. It proposes tripling funding for schools that serve primarily economically disadvantaged students, and increasing investments in rural education programs and initiatives to diversify and expand the teacher workforce. Funding would also go toward improving leadership and advancement opportunities for educators. 

Teachers are stressed out due to excessive standardized testing and overcrowded classrooms.

The Pay Teachers Act follows a bill, the American Teacher Act, that was recently reintroduced in the House by Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida that would use grants to give states the financial resources needed to provide teachers with a minimum $60,000 annual salary. The American Teacher Act has been referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor.

States including West Virginia, Utah, Arkansas, Delaware and Tennessee all have current proposals to raise teacher pay, with a Maryland plan requiring districts to pay teachers beginning salaries of at least $60,000 in 2026. In Texas, a task force is recommending that teachers receive more pay and better training to reduce the teacher shortage there.

Teshawn Leslie, a human resources management teacher at PSJA Sonia M. Sotomayor P-TECH High School in Pharr, Texas, said that a $60,000 base salary would go a long way in her region near the Mexico border.

“Teachers, they have a bachelor’s degree or beyond; some have a master’s, some have a Ph.D., so they should be getting a good salary, right?” she said. “I would side with a teacher raise, but I also feel that’s just one part of the problem when it comes to teachers. We really need to recruit qualified, talented teachers.”

She said that teachers are stressed out due to excessive standardized testing and overcrowded classrooms. To excel as educators, they must be passionate about their work and their students, she said. So, in addition to paying teachers more, Leslie would like to see more teachers with a genuine calling for the profession in classrooms with fewer students and lessons not designed to “teach to the test.”

“It takes a special person to be a teacher,” Leslie said. “You really have to love it.” 

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