Teachers in at least six states will soon see salary increases after lawmakers showed a renewed interest in teacher pay in the first six months of the year.
Lawmakers in 23 states proposed bills that would raise minimum teacher salaries, provide annual bonuses, and give paraeducators and special education teachers a boost, according to FutureEd, a Georgetown University research center that studies education policy. Those bills crossed the finish line in Arkansas, Florida, Maryland, Tennessee, Utah, and Washington. Four other states—California, Maine, Missouri, and Oklahoma—have passed bills that await final approval from their governors.
The action in state legislatures comes after governors in at least 29 states made addressing teacher staffing issues through increased compensation and recruitment efforts a top priority in their 2023 state of the state addresses, according to the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit that tracks education policy.
Democratic President Joe Biden called for pay raises in his State of the Union address in February and federal lawmakers, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., have introduced bills that would help the nation get to a $60,000 minimum salary for teachers. Both of those bills have not progressed through the Senate or House.
The teacher pay proposals have come from both Republicans and Democrats and show a level of interest in supporting teachers that teacher pay advocates haven’t seen from lawmakers in decades.
“We’ve been at this for 19 years and nobody cared,” Ninive Calegari, founder and CEO of the Teacher Salary Project, an organization that advocates for raising teacher pay, said of lawmakers. “I personally was so incredibly naïve. I literally thought that when people heard that teachers were housekeeping, and bartending, and driving Uber, that everyone would get so outraged, and that they would be incredulous…we couldn’t get anybody to care. So the difference is ginormous, with half the governors and the state legislators and the president [supporting teacher pay raises].”
But while the interest in raising teacher pay is welcome, lawmakers have a long way to go before teacher salaries are competitive with pay for similarly educated professionals in other industries. And some of the pay raise proposals are wrapped into bills that also establish private school choice programs, like education savings accounts and private school vouchers, that opponents worry threaten funding for public schools.
Policies are tied to school choice
For teachers in Arkansas, Florida, and Utah, the pay raises will come with more than a simple boost to their salary.
The Arkansas LEARNS Act, which stands for Literacy, Empowerment, Accountability, Readiness, Networking, and School Safety, requires school districts to raise minimum salaries from $36,000 to $50,000—a move that propels Arkansas’s starting salary ranking from 48th in the nation to sixth, according to the National Education Association’s report on teacher salary benchmarks in the 2020-21 school year.
But the law does much more than that. It also establishes the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program, which gives families state per-pupil funds to cover the costs of private school tuition, homeschooling expenses, tutoring, therapy services for learning disabilities, and other educational expenses.
In Florida, where the state’s appropriations law provided $252.8 million in additional funding for districts to cover the cost of teacher pay raises, teachers will also see the state’s Education Savings Accounts expand to be universal,with the state offering public funding to cover the cost of private school, homeschooling, and other educational expenses for all students in the state regardless of income, disability status, or experience in school.
In Utah, the Funding For Teacher Salaries and Optional Education Act provides $42.5 million to a tax fund that covers the cost of the state’s Utah Fits All program, an education savings account that provides $8,000 to any student in the state to pay for private school tuition, homeschooling, or other educational expenses, and teacher pay raises amounting to a $4,200 bump.
The laws, which tie teacher pay to school choice, put teachers in a strange position, where they feel the need to advocate for bills that may ultimately hurt public education, said Ellen Sherratt, board president of the Teacher Salary Project.
“It’s so cruel to put teachers in a position like that, where you exploit and underpay them and then say, ‘OK, well, you can have a livable salary, but only if you sacrifice your values,’” Sherratt said.
Other portions of teacher pay bills tie bonuses to student performance. A program to provide teachers with $10,000 annual bonuses, also included in the Arkansas LEARNS law, is only eligible for teachers who demonstrate outstanding growth in student performance, serve as mentors to aspiring teachers, or teach in subject areas or locations where it’s hard to fill teacher positions.
That method of paying teachers has been highly controversial for years, but research has found that it can be effective in recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers. At the same time, the model may make it harder for teachers to make livable salaries, Calegari said.
“For me personally, we have yet to see that [performance-based pay] is a true motivator to solve issues that we’re trying to solve,” she said.
A long way to go
Other states—including Maryland, Tennessee, and Washington—passed more straightforward teacher salary raises.
Starting next school year, schools in Maryland will be required to start increasing pay for special education teachers so that their salaries are equal to non-special education teachers in the next three years. In Tennessee, teachers will see steady salary increases over the next four years, bumping starting salaries from $40,000 in 2023-24 to $50,000 in 2026-27. In Washington, teachers will see a 3.7 percent salary raise in 2023-24.
But even with more action on teacher pay, many teachers’ salaries aren’t enough to make ends meet. Teachers make $3,644 less on average than they did 10 years ago when adjusted for inflation; and the average starting salary is $42,844, far below the $60,000 benchmark that lawmakers in Congress have established as ideal for teacher pay, according to the National Education Association.
The low pay has contributed to an overall lack of interest in the teaching profession. Over 60 percent of parents said they wouldn’t want their child to become a teacher, according to a 2022 PDK International poll, and 30 percent of those parents cited poor pay and benefits as a reason why.
“You have to think about what is it going to take to change parents’ minds and transform that dynamic,” Calegari said. “At the same time, people doing anything they can to get salaries up and putting this on the table as a priority is a positive.”