Low teacher pay is a matter of national security for supporters of legislation that would give states an incentive to raise base teacher salaries to $60,000.
A panel of education experts, including former Education Secretary Arne Duncan and 2019 Teacher of the Year Rodney Robinson, spoke in support of the bill, the American Teacher Act, during an event at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday as its sponsors prepare to reintroduce it in a new Congress.
“To me, this is an issue of national security,” Robinson said. “Who is going to teach the future generation to raise the system, to work the infrastructure, to protect this country if you don’t have teachers?”
The bill’s supporters are hopeful it could be a major step forward in bolstering the teacher pipeline and preventing school staffing shortages. It comes as average teacher salaries have declined in recent years when adjusted for inflation, and teacher job satisfaction appears to be at an all-time low. But the legislation faces uncertain prospects at best in a newly divided Congress.
The new version of the American Teacher Act will include key differences from the first version that Reps. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., and Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., introduced in the U.S. House in December. Still, the key parts of the bill will be the same, with the legislation establishing a four-year federal grant program that would provide states with funds to raise base teacher salaries. The bulk of those funds would go to school districts to help them adjust salaries to meet the $60,000 minimum.
The bill would also set aside funds for the U.S. Department of Education to support a national campaign to raise awareness about the value of teachers, encourage high school and college students to consider teaching as a career, and diversify the teacher population.
“Teachers are heroes, and they deserve a livable, competitive salary that accurately reflects the importance of their role in society,” Wilson said in a speech to kick off Wednesday’s event. “We should be embarrassed that 1 in 5 teachers in this country are forced to work a second job—some in retail, some in Ubers, and others in the service industry—to make ends meet.”
Changes to the bill adjust for cost of living
When the bill was first introduced, it did not include language to account for regional differences in the cost of living, causing some critics to point out that $60,000 isn’t a livable wage in expensive cities like New York or San Francisco.
As Wilson and her team prepare to reintroduce the bill, they’ve made changes to address those concerns, said Phelton Moss, Wilson’s senior policy adviser who has helped draft the bill. The new version will include an additional grant program so states can apply for funding that would provide teachers with cost-of-living adjustments.
The new version will also include a “maintenance of effort” provision, which will set up guardrails so states and school districts legally have to deliver on raising pay after receiving the money from the grant, Moss said. The new bill would also require states that receive the grant to change their salary structures to meet the $60,000 base, which would take legislation in most states, he said. That means if states decide they no longer want to support $60,000 salaries after the federal funding has dried up, their legislatures would have to agree to rewrite the law to switch salary structures back.
“I think there’s a world in which a state could say, ‘we want to reduce teacher salaries,’” after the grant period is over, Moss said. “That [would be] wildly unpopular for that to happen, but we have put guardrails—the maintenance of effort provision being the first one. But the biggest one of all is, you’re actually changing this in state law.”
The new version of the bill would also add a provision to protect teachers covered by collective bargaining agreements.
The policy team working on the bill expects it to be ready for Wilson to reintroduce in the next few days. Moss said they’re currently working through wording on the definition of a “teacher.”
The policymakers haven’t quite landed on how they should define “teacher” in order to avoid supporting states in paying unqualified or underqualified teachers using federal funds. A handful of states, including Arizona, Florida, Missouri, and Oklahoma, have eased certification requirements or dropped requirements that teachers receive a bachelor’s degree.
At the same time, the bill writers don’t want to include provisions that prevent people from diverse backgrounds, who might not have had the resources to participate in teacher certification or licensing programs, from benefiting from the raises.
“We’ve got to walk a fine line with this and not make a lot of assumptions about why people are not credentialed and think about the system that has created these credentials challenges that we do have…that often disenfranchise educators of color,” Moss said.
The economic argument
If it passes, the bill will not be cheap, and it’s likely that more fiscally conservative members of Congress will be hard to win over. Duncan, who served as secretary under former President Barack Obama, estimated that it would cost around $50 billion a year.
But that is well worth it, he said. Every student who drops out of school costs the economy around $272,000 in lower tax contributions, higher reliance on Medicaid and Medicare, higher rates of criminal activity, and a higher reliance on welfare, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
But the bill would only be effective if states participate. All of the panelists said Wednesday they feel confident that the bill would incentivize states to raise teacher pay by creating more competition. States that are reluctant to apply for the grant would start to see their teachers leave for other states with higher pay and be more motivated to apply, they said.
“It puts a lot of pressure on the governor if 30 or 40 other states are doing this, and it gives leverage to citizens saying, ‘If other states are doing this, what will happen?’” Duncan said. “The way we’ve structured [the bill] doesn’t guarantee success, but there’s a huge chance to have way more states participate than may meet the eye.”
Ultimately, students’ relationships with their teachers are a major factor in preventing dropouts, so supporting those teachers through better pay and more respect will lead to “a return on investment,” Duncan said.
“I used to say all the time that a great military is our best defense, but a great education system is our best offense,” he said. “Our country is in a very, very difficult, I would say, fragile, precarious place. Moments like this require a national response… and this bill, this legislation, will start to signal to everybody this is a national priority that our nation desperately needs and desperately deserves.”