When U.S. Reps. Frederica Wilson of Florida and Jamaal Bowman of New York, both Democrats, reintroduced a bill in February that would set a minimum national teacher salary of $60,000, we have to admit that it wasn’t on our radar. We had been so busy focused on book bans, the great resignation, and legislation to end African American and Black history programs that we had missed the news of the American Teacher Act when they first introduced an earlier version of the bill in December. And, now that Sen. Bernie Sanders is putting his support behind the legislation on the Senate side, Congress should take action on this issue.
While over the last few years this teacher shortage has caught the eyes of the public, those of us in teacher education have been ringing the alarm bell for more than a decade. Like many in the teaching profession, we are excited to see this crisis addressed at the national level. This attention to the profession is long overdue, and we feel this is a great first step. However, while we recognize that politics sometimes forces legislators to hold back from pushing too far for fear of incurring backlash, we would like to see this legislation go further to address the challenges within the profession.
As the department chair of a teacher education program and an education leadership professor, respectively, we often hear from district leaders requesting that we share job announcements for teaching positions they wish to be filled by Howard University graduates.
We hear of the struggles that superintendents and principals are facing filling teaching positions, especially those who are seeking to increase the number of teachers of color in their districts.
At our national job fair every spring, we see the demand from districts looking to hire our students outpace our number of graduating seniors.
With potential education majors seeing more opportunities and higher wages in other career paths, stricter teacher education requirements, and a generally bad word-of-mouth public campaign for the profession, it’s no wonder they are choosing not to enter teacher education programs.
Throughout both our careers, we have also heard from educators across the country that the challenges make staying in the profession difficult for them. While working in the District of Columbia, Colorado, and North Carolina, we have heard from teachers who see their students hurt by homelessness, food insecurity, and disparities in health-care access every day. New teachers see an uphill battle ahead. For example, just last month a recent high school graduate told us of they were interested in going into teaching but foresaw having to get a second job and generally “struggling for the first five to 10 years.”
We have heard from teachers who see and feel the impacts of decades of underinvestment in communities and from those who have watched state legislatures fail to fulfill constitutional funding obligations over generations.
The root causes of these large-scale inequities are not necessarily ones that schools alone can remedy. Instead, they require broader policy reforms to close the outside-of-school factors that create inside-of-school opportunity gaps. And, now, teachers face censorship in multiple states for teaching about race, gender, and sexual diversity.
With low teacher pay, challenging classroom and school conditions, and long-standing underinvestment in education, coupled with the new anti-critical-race-theory and anti-anything-equity movement, teachers are under greater strain. These factors have led to a crisis in our nation’s classrooms unlike anything we have seen in our careers.
The American Teacher Act, which has the support of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, attempts to tackle the critical nationwide teacher shortage head-on by offering financial support to states to enable the increase of a teacher’s minimum salary to $60,000. The bill also offers funding for a public-awareness campaign supporting the teaching profession and prioritizes support for low- and moderate-income districts.
The American Teacher Act is a good start, but more will be needed to address the challenges to the teaching profession that we have seen firsthand. Because the bill structures funding for states and districts in the form of four-year grants, we worry that already overworked and stressed teachers and administrators will have to jump through bureaucratic hoops to apply on top of their regular daily demands—not to mention handle additional paperwork burdens on the back end of the grants. Such additional work assignments tend to have a harder impact on Black and brown communities and high-poverty schools, whose teachers and administrators are already overtaxed.
And the short proposed timeline of grants leads us to question how sustainable these changes will be over the long term. What education funding needs is sustainable long-term sources, not one-time grants.
Although the importance of increasing the number of Black and Latino teachers has gained national prominence (a conversation that often leaves out the historical post-desegregation pushout of Black educators that led to today’s teacher demographics, as documented in Leslie T. Fenwick’s Jim Crow’s Pink Slip), addressing salary is just one, albeit important, component to increasing teacher diversity.
Will the federal legislation eliminate pay inequities between teachers of color and white teachers? Will it improve the workplace conditions for educators of color, who are often held responsible for a range of extra roles in schools and who must contend with racially hostile work environments? Increasing salaries alone may be only part of the solution. Recent studies have pointed to racial hostility and discrimination in the workplace as additional factors influencing thoughts of leaving the profession among Black and Latino educators. And, looking further upstream to factors that influence who enters the profession, it will also be important to close the K-12 opportunity gaps that impose unnecessary obstacles to Black and Latino students entering the teacher workforce.
Moving forward, we would like to see this legislation strengthened. We would like to see new legislation introduced to tackle rising state censorship issues that curtail teachers’ ability to teach truth, diversity, and equity in all levels of schooling. This legislation is a start to a much-needed movement to support teachers across the country. But no single piece of legislation can address everything. It will take a concerted effort on the federal, state, and local levels to improve the status, compensation, school climates, and protections for teachers.
A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2023 edition of Education Week as Money Alone Won’t Solve The Teacher Shortage