Are America’s teachers really underpaid?

In the spring of 2018, thousands of public school teachers walked out of their classrooms in a half-dozen states, protesting low salaries, rising class sizes and cuts to school budgets that have prompted most teachers to buy their own classroom supplies.

Additional strikes followed in 2019 in Los Angeles, Denver and Oakland.

While these walkouts, which enjoyed much public support, were about more than teacher pay, stagnant teacher salaries were central issues.

And political leaders have taken notice. For example, presidential hopeful Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democrat from California, has made boosting teacher salaries a part of her campaign. Her plan would allocate US$315 billion in federal funding over the next decade to increase pay for public school teachers and reward state and local governments for raising pay even higher, with the goal of eventually boosting teacher pay by an average of $13,500 per person. The proposal, which has been hailed as “the largest investment in teachers in American history” and criticized as a pitch for teacher union endorsements, would be paid for by as-yet unspecified increases in the estate tax.

From my standpoint as an expert on educational leadership and policy and as former assistant state superintendent for research and policy in the Michigan Department of Education, I see teachers as the most important resource in schools. Teachers’ impact on students persists into adulthood. Recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers in the nation’s public schools requires good working conditions, including competent and supportive leadership and a collegial environment. But pay matters.

Teacher salaries decline over time

Classroom teaching has never been a path to riches and, perhaps more than other professionals, teachers view their work more as a calling than as a way to make a good living. Still, teaching must compete with other occupations for talent. So how does teacher pay compare with the pay of other professions that require a similar education? By this comparison, teacher pay has been eroding for decades.

According to an Economic Policy Institute study, the teacher “wage penalty” – how much less teachers make than comparable workers – grew from 5.5% in 1979 to a record 18.7% in 2017.

Teacher wage gaps vary widely from state to state, but in no state does teacher pay equal or exceed pay for other college graduates. And it’s no coincidence that the four states with the largest gaps – Arizona, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Colorado – saw teacher protests in 2018.

In some states, teacher salaries have been so low that teachers have qualified for public assistance.