By: Jackie Valley, The Christian Science Monitor
On his first day back from winter break, Dawrin Mota leaves the Las Vegas charter school where he works as a literacy strategist and heads to his second job cleaning houses.
The side business he and his wife operate keeps cash flowing in to support discretionary spending. On this January evening, his wife cleans one house solo, they do two together, and they hire people to clean two more. It yields them about $350.
That kind of extra money was especially helpful during last month’s costly holiday season.
WHY WE WROTE THIS
The need to attract and retain teachers has sparked some U.S. states to channel more money into salaries. Now, the federal government will consider the question: What’s a fair wage?
“If I didn’t have it, I don’t know that I’d be able to really get my kids anything, honestly,” Mr. Mota says.
For decades, teachers have lamented lackluster pay – giving way to promises and debates on the campaign trail, in state legislatures, and in the hallways of Congress. Pockets of success have emerged along the way. Last year, governors from Florida to New Mexico worked with state legislatures to increase teacher salaries.
Then, in the waning days of the last session of Congress, the conversation took a new turn: A teacher-turned-congresswoman, Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Democrat from Florida, introduced the American Teacher Act.
Designed as a four-year federal grant program, the bill, set to be reintroduced in Congress on Wednesday, would help states lift their starting teacher salaries to $60,000, boost pay for veteran teachers, and make cost-of-living adjustments tied to inflation.
The proposal, which faces an uphill battle, has nonetheless renewed longstanding questions that have simmered and, occasionally, boiled over into protests and strikes: What’s a fair salary for teachers? And can educators and advocates get lawmakers on board with higher wages?
As states grapple with teacher shortages and fewer people entering the field, compensation often rises to the top of the concern list.
“It’s the No. 1 issue,” says Sanford Johnson, executive director of Teach Plus Mississippi, a branch of the national, policy-focused organization. “In the conversations that we have with teachers and the conversations we have with people who, you know, are aspiring teachers, a lot of teachers have said that they no longer see the profession as being something that’s sustainable.”
Rep. Frederica Wilson listens during a presentation about sea level rise, June 28, 2022, in Miami. The congresswoman, a Democrat and former teacher from Florida, plans to reintroduced the American Teacher Act on Jan. 25, 2023. The bill would offer a path to higher salaries for educators.
A starting point: $60,000
New teachers entering the workforce earned an average starting salary of $41,770 during the 2020-2021 academic year, according to the National Education Association. The union pegged the average salary for public school teachers – regardless of experience – at $65,293 that same year.
The baseline pay proposed by Representative Wilson’s bill represents a substantial increase over the typical starting salary, but she believes it’s a figure that could garner bipartisan support, says Karol Molinares, a spokesperson for Ms. Wilson.
“The congresswoman likes to say that, you know, this isn’t a ceiling – it’s a floor,” Ms. Molinares says, describing the selection of $60,000.
Representative Wilson plans to refile the bill – the first of its kind at the federal level – with the 118th Congress on Jan. 25. Already, the bill has more than 60 endorsements, including from both major teacher unions, the National PTA, and two former education secretaries, Arne Duncan and John B. King, Jr.
All public school teachers, including those who work in charter schools that receive public funding, would be eligible for the salary bump, Ms. Molinares says. The original bill targets the 2024-’25 academic year as the start date.
Even though Representative Wilson and the original bill’s eight co-sponsors are Democrats, advocates say they see opportunity for Republican support, given teacher shortages and broad public backing for boosting educator income.
Researchers from Kansas State University and the University of Illinois-Champaign published a report in August estimating that at least 36,500 teaching vacancies exist across the nation, representing nearly 1.7% of positions. On top of that, 163,000 people without proper licensure are helping fill those positions.
That means potentially millions of students don’t have a qualified teacher leading their classroom each day – a problem some experts are concerned could worsen over the coming years.
Picketing teachers and staff break for lunch outside Northgate Elementary School in Seattle on the third day of a strike by the Seattle Education Association on Sept. 9, 2022. Recent strikes, such as this one, often include debate over pay.
Mississippi, long on the low end of teacher pay scales, was one of the states that started increasing pay last year. Magnolia State lawmakers passed a bill – signed by Republican Gov. Tate Reeves – that gave teachers an average increase of $5,100 and implemented pay increases throughout a teacher’s career. It also bumped starting teacher pay to $41,500, up from $37,000.
Mr. Johnson says his Teach Plus Mississippi and other advocacy organizations and allies leaned on educators’ personal stories to help their cause. Teachers submitted written testimony to the Legislature and started 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 moonlights as a bartender and waitress once or twice a week. Many of her co-workers also hold second jobs, she says, whether at a brick-and-mortar business or through a gig economy opportunity such as DoorDash.
Ms. Jackson credits the awareness campaign, especially on social media, with moving state lawmakers to action.
“I think the more voices you have speaking out about something and the more attention you have within the state, the more it just becomes like, ‘Oh, we have to do this,’” she says.
The raise brought her annual salary to roughly $50,000, which she describes as a more livable wage. She no longer works her second job every weekend.
Ms. Jackson, who has a master’s degree, says she is thankful for the increase. But when asked what she considers a fair wage for teachers, she hesitates. This is the most she has ever made.
“I don’t think we value teachers as much as we say we do because they’re still among some of our lowest-paid professionals that we see in the workforce throughout the U.S.,” she says.
A report from the Economic Policy Institute backs up her assertion. Depending on where they live, teachers in the United States earn a weekly wage that is 3.4% to 35.9% less than that of their college-educated peers. In 28 states, that figure – known as a wage penalty – exceeds 20%. Benefits somewhat offset that pay reality, but not enough to level the playing field. The report found that teachers’ total compensation penalty grew by 11.5 percentage points from 1993 to 2021.
“Is this possible?”
Despite the celebratory atmosphere surrounding the Mississippi pay raises last year, Mr. Johnson takes a pragmatic approach. He says it can’t be the endpoint, though he wonders whether the political will exists to jump to $60,000 as the federal bill seeks to do.
“We’re in a divided Congress right now,” he says. “Is this possible?”
With the GOP-led House currently threatening a fight with the White House over raising the debt ceiling to pay existing U.S. debt, the fate of new expenditures is very much up in the air. And, on top of that, concerns have emerged about states’ abilities to sustain the pay increases when the runway of federal funding expires.
The proposed grant program in the bill is essentially bridge funding, says Ellen Sherratt, board president of The Teacher Salary Project, a nonpartisan organization that provided input.
The aim is to get states “to look into how they’re spending their money and how they might be able to move funds around to support a significantly higher teacher salary schedule,” she says.
She acknowledges the federal effort is far from any finish line. It’s an authorizing bill that, if passed, would become an appropriations bill with a price tag attached. She hopes to see parents, teachers, lawmakers, and influential figures – such as celebrities and professional athletes – coalesce around the proposed legislation, providing momentum for moving the pay needle faster.
“We’ve been trying and trying, and states have managed to an extent,” Ms. Sherratt says. “But the increases that we’re seeing in places like Mississippi and Alabama and elsewhere – they’re still quite modest.”
Mr. Mota, an Army veteran, finally eclipsed the $60,000 mark about two years ago when he moved from a traditional public school. His upgraded salary at Odyssey Charter School typically covers the bills, but it leaves little wiggle room for any extras.
Earlier in his career, he juggled teaching elementary students, tutoring after school, and working as an adjunct professor at a local community college to make ends meet. Now, cleaning houses helps his bank account, but it also means less time being physically present with his children, who sometimes ask why he’s so busy or tired.
“Nobody should have to work this hard to have a vacation,” he says. “Nobody should have to work this hard ... to afford something like a purse or to go see a concert or whatever.”