The bill is unlikely to get through this Congress—but the problem is becoming impossible to ignore.
BY SHIRIN ALI
After decades of stagnant pay, salaries for teachers in the U.S. could finally be catching up to those of their college-educated counterparts. That’s thanks to a renewed effort on Capitol Hill to pass federal legislation that would cement higher salaries for all public school teachers across the country.
The American Teacher Act, first introduced to Congress by Democratic Reps. Frederica Wilson and Jamaal Bowman in December 2022, aims to “ensure that each teacher who is employed full-time at a qualifying school in a state earns an annual salary for any year of employment of not less than $60,000” by the 2024–2025 school year. If passed, Congress would require states to pass legislation that establishes a statewide teacher salary schedule or a minimum teacher salary requirement. States would be incentivized to do so because the federal government would issue four-year grants to help states meet that $60,000 salary.
If the bill passes, it stands to dramatically increase thousands of teachers’ salaries across the country. While nationally, public school teachers earned an average salary of $65,293 in the 2020–2021 school year, that’s simply the average. There’s a pretty huge spectrum in pay depending on where a teacher was employed. New York, Massachusetts, and California, for example, are higher-paying states, with average salaries for teachers coming in between $85,000 and $90,000 in the 2020–2021 school year. Mississippi, South Dakota, and West Virginia paid their teachers the lowest salaries in the country, with average salaries ranging between $46,000 and $50,000.
Overall, 29 states paid their public school teachers under $60,000 annually in the 2020–2021 school year, according to the National Education Association’s annual report. When taking into account housing, food, child care, health care, transportation, and other everyday necessities, a living wage calculator created by researchers at MIT estimates that a family of four needed to earn a little over $100,000 in 2021. Most non-teaching jobs, like police officers, engineers, web developers, or commercial drivers, earn over $60,000 annually—and they don’t always require a college degree.
It may not come as a surprise that teaching has experienced little salary growth in the past few years: Since 1996, the inflation-adjusted average weekly wages of public school teachers have stayed relatively flat, increasing by only $29—from $1,319 in 1996 to $1,348 in 2021. At the same time, the Economic Policy Institute found that other non-teacher college-educated adults saw their wages increase by $445, from $1,564 to $2,009.
Low pay coupled with several tumultuous school years thanks to COVID-19 has created teacher shortages in select school districts across the country—leading some states to increase teacher pay as a solution. Arkansas paid its teachers an average of about $54,000 in the 2020–2021 school year, and after its Department of Education proposed emergency rules to address its dire teacher shortage, state lawmakers kicked off the new year by filing legislation to raise public school teacher starting salaries to $50,000.
If the American Teacher Act passes, it stands to lift up starting salaries for teachers newly joining classrooms. But teachers themselves haven’t all agreed on whether it goes far enough, with the Teacher Salary Project finding responses for preferred pay ranging from $50,000 to $150,000. Other common responses were requests for a $20,000 raise or 20 percent more than current pay. Adding to the conundrum of what a fair starting salary is for the profession is the fact that teacher pay is often set by long-term contracts that include built-in increases for years served, making them less volatile than private-sector wages. Still, data from the U.S. Census Bureau suggests that the investment in a higher-education degree typically provides less payoff for teachers compared to other professions.
Many advocates and parents feel that something has to change. Not being paid an acceptable salary has led to a growing number of teachers leaving the profession, while fewer undergraduates are pursuing it as a career. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed a net loss of about 600,000 educators working in public education in early 2022 compared to 2020. A survey by the NEA also found that 55 percent of educators were considering leaving the profession earlier than they had planned. Meanwhile, many U.S. teacher prep programs are shrinking or shutting down completely due to low enrollment. The EPI noted the obvious in its report on teacher wages: “among those students who would like to dedicate their careers to teaching, many are undoubtedly choosing to forgo a public school teaching career in lieu of a better-paying career choice.”
Going private doesn’t earn teachers much more, either—full-time public school teachers earned about 30 percent more than private school teachers in the 2020–21 school year.
Increasing teacher salaries could solve this problem and a few more, with higher salaries likely to keep more teachers in their current jobs, attract young students into the profession, and draw in higher-quality candidates. That feels especially critical at this moment, as millions of students are back in the classroom after two years of disrupted pandemic learning and teachers are now tasked with addressing an alarming loss of learning.
The American Teacher Act has only attracted Democratic co-sponsors so far, making the bill’s future uncertain. But a number of Republican governors have publicly committed to raising teachers’ pay in response to the dire situation on the ground. It’s still unclear if that will translate into bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.