By: Libby Stanford
Should teachers be paid a minimum salary of at least $60,000? A new bill introduced in Congress says yes.
The American Teacher Act, introduced by Rep. Federica Wilson, D-Fla., on Dec. 14, would incentivize states and school districts to increase the minimum K-12 teacher salary to $60,000 and provide yearly adjustments for inflation through new federal grants.
Over the past few years, the congresswoman has been alarmed by stories of schools shortening weeks, canceling classes, increasing class sizes, and placing underprepared substitutes in teaching roles because of the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing teacher shortages. While there isn’t a single database tracking teacher shortages, one report estimates the nation had around 36,500 teacher vacancies at the start of this school year.
“We might not feel the effects of this exodus of teachers moving away from education right away, but this will have catastrophic effects to the education quality of our students,” Wilson said in an email.
If the bill passes, which is still a big question mark, Wilson believes it will raise teacher morale and respect for the profession, ultimately filling teacher shortages throughout the country.
Where teacher pay stands
In 2020-21, the average base salary for public school teachers was $61,600, according to data from the National Teacher and Principal Survey. But that number varies widely from state to state. In New York, teachers earned the highest average base salary that school year at $90,222, while teachers in Mississippi earned the lowest at $46,862, according to 2020-21 data from the National Education Association.
Some public school teachers still have to work extra hours or other jobs to make up for low pay. Nearly 17 percent of teachers had a job outside the school system in 2020-21, and 40 percent of teachers received extra pay for working extracurriculars or additional activities in their school system, according to the federal data.
Public school teachers also often work more than the average 39.4 hours a week required by their employment contracts with districts. In 2020-21, teachers worked 52 hours a week on average, only 25.2 of those hours actually spent on teaching.
Teachers are also working under a “pay penalty,” an economic concept meaning they earn lower weekly wages and receive lower overall compensation for their work than similar college-educated peers, according to the Economic Policy Institute. That penalty reached a record high in 2021, with teachers earning 76.5 cents on the dollar compared with their peers.
There has been some movement on the state level to correct teacher pay. In 2022, 115 bills related to teacher compensation—including bonuses, salary adjustments, and retirement packages—were introduced in state legislatures and 113 were enacted, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But it hasn’t been enough to get more college students interested in becoming teachers.
How the American Teacher Act could help
“The American Teacher Act will set a teacher salary floor of $60,000, help recruit qualified teachers, and support a national campaign to renew awareness of teaching as an essential and economically viable profession,” Wilson said.
If passed, the bill would authorize funding for the federal government to award four-year grants to states and districts to enact and enforce legislation that would establish a teacher-salary requirement of $60,000 minimum. Fifteen percent of those grants would go to states, and 85 percent would go directly to districts. Local education agencies with a majority of low or moderate-income students would be prioritized.
The bill would also require states to include a cost-of-living adjustment to ensure minimum salaries keep pace with inflation. An NEA report released in April found that teacher salaries decreased by around 3.9 percent over the last decade when adjusted for inflation.
Under the federal legislation, states would also be required to adjust part-time teacher salaries so they are proportional to workload. And the grants would require states to maintain teacher-salary structures, such as the number of steps in a salary schedule while adjusting steps to reflect the $60,000 minimum.
The bill also would dedicate funds to a national campaign that would expand awareness of the value of teaching and encourage secondary and college students to consider the career.
50 organizations support the bill
Wilson was not the first to float the idea of a $60,000 minimum salary. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called for the same base-salary adjustment in 2019 when he ran for president. And many education and teacher advocates have been pushing for pay increases for decades.
But the introduction of the American Teacher Act marks a turning point in the fight for increased teacher pay, said Ninive Calegari, a co-founder of the Teacher Salary Project, one of over 50 organizations that have publicly supported the bill.
In a dream world, Calegari would like to see the minimum pay be even higher because $60,000 does not go far in many expensive cities like New York and San Francisco. But she believes the bill will send a message that teachers are a valued part of society.
“We need something really dramatic that sends a message to teachers in the classroom that we value them, we support them, and we don’t want them bartending and driving Uber,” Calegari said. “And we also need to send a really loud and clear message to college students that this is a viable profession where they don’t have to be poor.”
The bill has not yet been assigned to a committee. Wilson is confident that the $60,000 minimum salary will receive bipartisan support from other members of Congress, and she’s hopeful that it would incentivize states to go higher than the minimum.
“Now, remember, this is a minimum. This is the floor,” Wilson said in an email. “It is my hope that states will supplement or add to that floor. This is a starting point and not the ceiling.”