Federal Q&A

Boosting ‘Pathetically Low’ Teacher Pay Is Top of Mind for Bernie Sanders

By Libby Stanford — February 01, 2023 6 min read
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., talks with reporters outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023.
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Restoring respect for the nation’s teachers and boosting their pay so starting salaries aren’t “pathetically low” are top of mind for Sen. Bernie Sanders as he prepares to take over the Senate committee that oversees education.

Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont who became widely known for his progressive politics after two presidential runs, said this week in an interview with Education Week that he supports $60,000 as a minimum teacher salary and that he’s working on legislation to make it happen just as a group of Democrats in the House prepare to introduce legislation with the same goal.

Sanders also called for “serious gun safety legislation” to help prevent school shootings, criticized an accelerated push for school vouchers and school choice policies in Republican-led states, and warned against laws that restrict how teachers can address race, gender, and sexuality.

“I don’t think you go into the future by trying to hide or disguise what happened in the past,” he said.

Sanders is taking over as chair of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who will lead the appropriations committee.

He’ll serve alongside Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who is expected to be the committee’s ranking GOP member. If they want to get anything passed, the pair will have to enlist the support of enough senators from both parties and their counterparts in the Republican-led House, where North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx leads the chamber’s Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Sanders said he’s prepared for the challenge.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’re set to take leadership of the HELP Committee. What are your top priorities for K-12 education?

I am very, very concerned about the fact that hundreds of thousands of teachers are leaving the profession. They are wonderful teachers, people who devoted years to the profession, but for a variety of reasons they no longer choose to stay in the profession. This is a big issue that we’re going to look at.

(While there have been widespread reports of staffing shortages in schools—including for some teaching positions—there are no national data that show a mass exodus from the profession. In recent surveys, however, record numbers of teachers say they want to quit teaching earlier than planned.)

The reasons are manifold. Certainly, low pay and the fact that professions with commensurate education have seen a much greater increase in salary than teachers have in the last many years. Second of all, what is really very upsetting to me is that salaries for incoming teachers are just pathetically low. You have many places in this country where you graduate college, you have student debt, and you begin your teaching profession at $16 an hour. That’s just not acceptable. Obviously, you’ve got a political situation in some states where teachers are being blamed for every problem facing the world.

The bottom line here is how we strengthen our teaching force, how we bring back respect to teachers, who certainly deserve respect because they do enormously important work across society. How we help make sure that they are paid adequately.

Speaking of teachers, representatives in the House have introduced a bill to raise the base teacher salary to $60,000. What do you think of that effort and what else can be done to support teachers?

We’re working on legislation to do just that. Teachers do enormously important, difficult work. They need to be respected. We need to attract young people in college to go into the profession. Yes, I do think $60,000 is appropriate for what teachers should be earning at a minimum.

We have to deal, obviously, with the issue of student debt as well. Many young people are going into the profession completely in debt. I support what President Joe Biden has proposed. I would go further. I think we should cancel all student debt. That would be an important step forward in terms of attracting and maintaining teachers.

Also, teachers need a lot of help. They can’t do it alone. You need to have staff, whether it’s nurses or mental health counselors, to be assisting them. We’re weak in that area as well. There are many parts of the country where the infrastructure of schools is inadequate. I think that’s something we should pay attention to.

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Teachers from Seattle Public Schools picket outside Roosevelt High School on what was supposed to be the first day of classes, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Seattle. The first day of classes at Seattle Public Schools was cancelled and teachers are on strike over issues that include pay, mental health support, and staffing ratios for special education and multilingual students.
Teachers from Seattle Public Schools picket outside Roosevelt High School on what was supposed to be the first day of classes, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Seattle. The first day of classes at Seattle Public Schools was cancelled and teachers are on strike over issues that include pay, mental health support, and staffing ratios for special education and multilingual students.
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There are a lot of states that are starting to pass policies promoting vouchers for private schools and school choice. What are your thoughts on those policies?

I am a strong believer in public education for a wide variety of reasons. I think we can use experimentation to support ideas in public education to be sure. But I’m a strong believer in public education.

One of the areas in terms of public education that I think we have made some progress on but we need to further is the concept of community schools. There are some communities around this country, which have done really a tremendous job at rethinking what a public school is. That is, it’s a place not only where kids get treated academically from 9-3 p.m., but it’s a place where kids get the health care and the dental care they need. It’s a place where parents feel comfortable coming in. It becomes a center for the entire community. I think there has been just a whole lot of success in certain parts of the country in terms of community schools. That’s something I want to look at.

I’m certainly against private school vouchers. Tax money should not be going to support private schools.

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Students and teachers from East High School in Salt Lake City walk out of school to protest the HB15 voucher bill, on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023. Several years of pandemic restrictions and curriculum battles have emboldened longtime advocates of funneling public funds to private and religious schools in statehouses throughout the country.
Students and teachers from East High School in Salt Lake City walk out of school on Jan. 25, 2023, to protest legislation that would create private-school vouchers in the state. Several years of pandemic restrictions and curriculum battles have emboldened longtime advocates of funneling public funds to private and religious schools in statehouses throughout the country.
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The Biden administration has promised to triple funding for Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. What are your thoughts on the priorities for those programs going forward?

That was my campaign pledge as well, and I’m glad President Biden supported it. It’s something we’re going to strive toward. Look, every kid in America deserves a quality education. It’s no great secret that the kids who live in affluent suburbs have better schools than the kids living in a city. We’ve got to make sure that every kid in this country gets the quality education he or she deserves as an American. That means essentially increasing Title I.

School safety is another issue top of mind for educators right now. What can Congress do to expand beyond the support provided to schools through the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act?

That’s a great question and I can’t give you a definitive answer. I can simply say that there’s nothing in my mind more horrible. The shootings that we have seen in Texas and elsewhere are just indescribable. I think as a nation we’ve got to come to grips that tens of thousands of people every year are killed because guns are in this country.

We need to do what the American people want us to do, and that is to bring forth serious gun safety legislation. I strongly believe that, and it applies to the schools.

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There’s been a lot of attention to fights over how teachers teach about race, gender, and sexuality. What are your thoughts on how those issues are affecting schools, and what can Congress do about it?

I had hoped that in America, which prides itself on being the land of the free, that we do not go around banning books, that we understand that exposing kids and all people to all different ideas is what this country is supposed to be about.

Furthermore, there are aspects of our history, which are very distasteful to every decent person. Slavery existed. That’s a tragic fact, but it’s a fact. It was a horrible and barbaric act. Things that we did to Native American people were terrible, but it happens to have been reality.

I don’t think you go into the future by trying to hide or disguise what happened in the past. People can argue. You can debate, but I think it is important for young people and for people all over this country to take a hard and honest look at our history. That’s the best way we can go forward. Knowing the past helps us go forward in a better way in the future. Just saying that we should not expose kids to the horrors of slavery or the way we treated Native American people, that’s not acceptable to me.

I don’t know exactly how that plays out in terms of what Congress does or does not do—education is largely run by states. But I think trying to deny the history of the United States is not a very good idea.

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