Teaching Profession

Teacher Pay Remains Low, and COVID-19 Has Thwarted Efforts to Raise It

By Madeline Will — September 29, 2020 3 min read
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A decade after the Great Recession, teachers’ paychecks have yet to fully recover: Two recent reports say that teachers are still paid less than similar professionals, with teachers qualifying for government assistance in some cases.

And although many states passed a teacher pay raise last year after two years of widespread activism to raise salaries, the coronavirus pandemic has since thwarted efforts to fix what experts say is a serious problem for teacher recruitment and retention.

A new report by the Southern Regional Education Board found that in 38 states, a mid-career teacher who is the sole earner in a family of four would qualify for two or more government assistance benefits, such as health insurance and rental assistance programs. In four states—Florida, Mississippi, New Mexico, and West Virginia—teacher salaries are so low that a teacher who is the head of household for a family of four would qualify for five or more government benefits, including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

Another recent report from the Economic Policy Institute found that in 2019, public school teachers were paid 19.2 percent less in weekly wages relative to other college-educated workers, after accounting for factors such as education, experience, and state residence. The gap has grown substantially since the mid-1990s, but has improved slightly since 2018, when the teacher wage penalty was 22 percent. This improvement could reflect pay raises enacted after teacher protests in several states, but EPI says the data are not sufficient enough to say this with certainty.

    Experts say they’re concerned that any progress states were beginning to make with raising teacher pay will be wiped away by the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

    Over the past two years, teachers across the country called attention to their stagnant paychecks, staging multi- or single-day walkouts and protests in at least 10 states. Nearly half of governors proposed raising teacher pay last year, with most seeing their proposals fully or partially realized. There was another flurry of legislation early this year to continue raising teacher pay—but an Education Week analysis found that once the pandemic hit, legislators scaled down or scrapped those plans.

    “Teacher pay was really at its height right when the Great Recession hit, and we haven’t really recovered from that,” said Megan Boren, a program specialist with SREB and the author of the report. “It’s very concerning to think that the whole cycle could repeat again what happened the last 10 years.”

    See also: How the Coronavirus Is Jeopardizing Teacher Pay Raises

    The average teacher salary in the United States in 2018-19 was $58,540. In 2009-10, right before the Great Recession hit state budgets, the average teacher salary was $61,804, the SREB report says.

    Boren’s analysis of whether teachers qualify for government benefits assumes there is no second income from a spouse, and that the teacher does not have a second job. (Federal data show that nearly 1 in 5 public school teachers have second jobs during the school year.) But even with those caveats, Boren said the analysis shows that teachers in some states are not “at what we would categorize as professional-level pay.”

    And the pay could be taking a toll on teacher recruitment, Boren said. High school students say low pay is the No. 1 reason they are not considering going into teaching, survey results from before the pandemic show. While teachers do tend to have better retirement benefits than a private sector worker, Boren said that is not a high priority for millennials and Generation Z, who are less likely to plan to stay in the same profession for a lifetime.

    Yet a full economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic could take years, and teacher pay raises could remain on the backburner. In the meantime, the SREB report came up with a list of moderate-, low-, and no-cost strategies to retain teachers and incentivize the profession. They include:

    • providing professional development stipends for teachers, so they can continue honing their craft in a way that works for them;
    • allowing teachers to have a full planning period and preserving that time so teachers can get their work done without being tapped for other duties by administrators;
    • rewarding teacher outcomes by providing bonuses for teachers who have taken on additional responsibilities; and
    • tapping local businesses to donate products (such as classroom supplies or gift cards) and services (such as catering lunches).

    Image via Getty, chart via SREB

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    A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.