Teaching Profession

Teachers to Congress: We Shouldn’t Have to Work Second Jobs

Teachers called on senators to value educators while Republicans questioned whether raising pay should be a federal priority
By Libby Stanford — June 20, 2024 7 min read
John Arthur, a teacher at Meadowlark Elementary School in Salt Lake City, speaks before the Senate HELP Committee during a hearing on teacher salaries in Washington, D.C., on June 20, 2024.
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There’s no job more important in America than the public school teacher, according to Sen. Bernie Sanders.

But teachers in the United States have long been “overworked, underpaid, and understaffed,” Sanders said during a June 20 U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, or HELP, committee hearing examining the “crises facing public school teachers in America.”

Teachers have long contended with low pay and morale. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated those challenges, and schools across the U.S. are confronting teacher shortages, particularly for positions such as special education teachers, as young people opt for professions with higher pay and better working conditions.

At Thursday’s hearing, Sanders and Democratic lawmakers argued that raising teacher pay will help schools combat shortages while Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, the committee’s ranking Republican, said the federal government already spends too much money on education and that its focus should be on education priorities other than raising teacher pay.

Last year, Sanders, I-Vt., who chairs the committee that held the hearing, introduced a bill that would raise minimum teacher salaries to $60,000 by tripling Title I funding and requiring states to raise salaries to $60,000. That bill, known as the Pay Teachers Act, however, has not gained much momentum. It has yet to pass through the HELP committee, and its companion in the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, the American Teacher Act, which would create grants to incentivize states to raise teacher pay, has not cleared that chamber’s committee on education and the workforce. The bills are unlikely to make it through a divided Congress, as they have not drawn support from Republicans in either chamber.

Despite efforts in state legislatures to raise teacher salaries, teachers continues to work longer hours and receive less pay on average than other professionals with bachelor’s degrees working at least 35 hours a week. In a RAND Corporation survey released this week, 37 percent of teachers labeled low salaries as a top source of their stress and 22 percent said they intended to leave their job at the end of the 2023-24 school year, with 17 percent saying they plan to leave the profession altogether.

The average 2023-24 teacher salary was estimated at $71,699 and the average starting salary in 2022-23 was $44,530, according to the National Education Association’s 2024 teacher pay report.

The starting salary in 2022-23 was a 3.9 percent increase over 2021-22—the largest in the NEA’s 14-year history of tracking teacher pay—but it falls $4,273 below 2008-09 pay levels when adjusted for inflation. In 2021, teachers made on average 76.5 cents for every dollar other college graduates earned, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank supported partially by teachers’ unions.

“In America today, nearly 20 percent of public school teachers in our country are forced to work two or three jobs during the school year,” Sanders said. “Maybe they are driving Uber, maybe they are waiting tables, maybe they’re parking cars. As the richest country in the history of the world, it seems to me that we have got to do a lot better than that.”

But while Sanders and witnesses he invited championed raising pay, witnesses invited by Cassidy argued that other aspects of the teaching profession need more attention than teacher pay, such as poor classroom and building conditions and teacher preparation programs that aren’t setting teachers up for success.

“If we expect higher pay to improve student outcomes—if that is the why—then I fear we will be disappointed,” said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning policy think tank. “Higher pay does not ease the burden we place on teachers or add hours to their day. The problem we seldom discuss is we’ve made teaching too hard on mere mortals.”

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U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona delivers a speech during the “Raise the Bar: Lead the World” event in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 24, 2023.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona delivers a speech during the “Raise the Bar: Lead the World” event in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 24, 2023.
Sam Mallon/Education Week

Teachers cite low pay and a high cost to become licensed

“The No. 1 reason teachers leave the profession is the pay,” said John Arthur, a 6th grade teacher at Meadowlark Elementary School in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the 2021 Utah Teacher of the Year, told senators. “The No. 1 reason parents don’t want their children to become teachers is the pay. So the No. 1 solution to addressing the issues we face must be increasing teacher salaries.”

In a 2022 survey of 1,008 adults, only 37 percent of respondents said they would want a child of theirs to become a teacher, according to PDK International, a professional association of educators that annually surveys the public on attitudes toward education. In an Education Week survey of 1,498 teachers in October 2023, 21 percent of teachers said they would recommend teaching to their child or a child of a close friend or family member.

Arthur, the son of Korean immigrants, said his mother was not among that 37 percent. She hoped Arthur would become a lawyer or a doctor. Her main concern: U.S. teachers aren’t respected as they are in her home country.

“She was upset. Not because she didn’t respect teachers, quite the opposite,” Arthur said. “In Korea, teachers hold a position of high esteem and receive high pay, prestige, and respect. That’s what my mom wanted for her son.”

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Teacher working on scheduling at desk.

The other teacher witness Sanders invited, Gemayel Keyes, a special education teacher at Gilbert Spruance Elementary School in Philadelphia, shared a similar story.

Keyes started as a paraprofessional earning a $16,000 salary with the potential to grow to $30,000.

Keyes realized he wanted to move into teaching, but he couldn’t afford the required training. He had obtained his associate and bachelor’s degrees in early childhood education, but to get his teaching license he would have had to complete a student teaching program, meaning he would have to take a leave of absence from his job as a paraprofessional, depriving him of his meager income as he pursued his license.

Keyes spoke to his union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, about his predicament, and the union began working with the district on a grow-your-own program called Para Pathway so paraprofessionals in the district could access a cost-free pathway to earn their teacher certification.

Without Para Pathway, Keyes said, he wouldn’t have had the means to become a teacher. But being a teacher still comes with its financial challenges. Keyes noted that he’s spent over $1,000 this year out of his pocket on classroom supplies, and he works a part-time job to supplement his income.

“As a teacher, I wake up every day to make a choice to be an urban educator in a district where the school buildings are crumbling from decades of deferred maintenance and have issues with asbestos, and many students have diverse needs,” Keyes said. “Other countries take their education seriously and value their educators. So I hope you guys in Congress, who are the policymakers that shape education in America, can do the same.”

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Teacher at a chalkboard.

Raising teacher pay isn’t a universal federal priority

Cassidy was the sole Republican senator to attend Thursday’s hearing.

While working conditions for teachers are a concern, he said, Congress should focus instead on other K-12 issues, like expanding the use of the science of reading in literacy instruction and parents’ rights over school curriculum and operations.

The federal government already spends too much on education, he said, with few positive results, citing historic declines in students’ reading and math scores following the pandemic.

“We are the committee with jurisdiction over federal K-12 funding, and we have a responsibility to examine this broken system,” Cassidy said. “Our kids will spend roughly 15,000 hours in school between kindergarten and 12th grade. If they are not learning, what are they doing? I’m not sure throwing more money at the problem is the solution.”

Cassidy pointed to recent state-level action to raise teacher pay, saying the issue isn’t an area where the federal government needs to play a role .

In 2023, at least nine states increased teacher salaries by changing salary structures, offering bonuses, raising salary minimums, or other means, according to FutureEd, a Georgetown University think tank that tracks education policy. So far this year, seven additional states—Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Missouri, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Utah—have enacted laws increasing teacher compensation.

All of those seven states have Republican governors and GOP-controlled legislatures. But all of the laws they’ve passed fall short of instituting the $60,000 starting salary benchmark Sanders calls for in his bill.

In South Dakota, the law raises minimum teacher salaries to $47,500 for the coming school year and $50,000 the following year. South Dakota ranked 27th in the nation for starting teacher salaries in 2022-23 and 49th for average teacher salary, according to the NEA.

In Utah, the teacher pay law establishes a five-year pilot program to provide $10,000 bonuses each year to the highest-performing 5 percent of teachers in the state. Such performance-based pay measures have been controversial, and research about their impact has been mixed.

And in Arkansas, where state lawmakers enacted a sweeping law last year that raised starting salaries to $50,000, many teachers felt uncomfortable supporting the measure because it also established a universal private school choice program that provides families that don’t enroll their children in public schools with public, per-pupil funds to use for tuition to private schools or other education expenses.


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