Demanding an end to "the international embarrassment" of low teacher pay in the United States, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on Thursday introduced legislation to guarantee a minimum salary for public school educators of $60,000 per year, moving to fulfill a pledge he made during his 2020 presidential campaign.
The Vermont Independent senator called on the federal government to take accountability for chronic staffing shortages in school districts across the country, which he said is linked to the fact that "the starting pay for teachers in almost 40% of our nation's school districts is less than $40,000 a year" and that the average weekly wage of a public school teacher has gone up by just $29 in the past 30 years, adjusting for inflation.
More than half of the nation's schools are understaffed, according to the National Center on Education Statistics, and Sanders noted in a fact sheet about his proposal that "hundreds of thousands of public school teachers have to work two or three jobs during the school year to make ends meet." A recent report by the Teacher Salary Project found that 17% of educators work part-time in retail, restaurants, or in the gig economy to supplement their meager incomes.
Sanders, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, called the statistic "simply unacceptable."
"The situation has become so absurd that the top 15 hedge fund managers on Wall Street make more money in a single year than every kindergarten teacher in America combined—over 120,000 teachers," said the senator. "Wages for public school teachers are so low that in 36 states, the average public school teacher with a family of four qualifies for food stamps, public housing, and other government assistance programs. We have got to do better than that."
The Pay Teachers Act of 2023 would significantly increase investments in public education, beyond teacher salaries—tripling Title I-A funding for schools with high percentages of low-income students and funding for rural education programs; providing an additional $1 billion for the Bureau of Indian Education; and investing in grant programs to improve teacher preparation and development, among other investments.
States would be required to establish a "minimum salary for teachers" of at least $60,000 per year, with increases throughout their career, and to ensure teachers are paid "a livable and competitive annual salary" that's comparable to professionals with similar education requirements.
"Educators are nation builders," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.7 educators. "They have a vital role in educating and caring for our next generation. But they are neither treated nor paid commensurate with that role. Teachers earn nearly 24% less than similarly educated professionals, and when adjusted for inflation, many [earn] less than they were making a decade ago."
"Even with their need to take second jobs, educators spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on supplies, snacks, books, and other items for students," she added. "Chairman Bernie Sanders's bill, the Pay Teachers Act, will help close the pay gap by significantly increasing federal investments in public schools and raising annual teacher salaries."
Co-sponsors of the Pay Teachers Act include Democratic Sens. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Alex Padilla of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Peter Welch of Vermont.
Ellen Sherratt, board president of the Teacher Salary Project, applauded the legislation and lawmakers who are"fighting for teacher salary levels that are professional."
Sanders introduced the legislation a month after holding a town hall with labor leaders and teachers from across the country regarding chronic low pay in the field, where educators talked about completing hours of work per week outside of the school day for no extra pay, purchasing snacks for low-income students, and facing barriers to working in schools that have many open teaching positions and have resorted to hiring people without teaching qualifications.
"Students of every color, background, and ZIP code deserve qualified and caring educators who are dedicated and have the resources to uncover the passions and potential of every child," said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association (NEA), as Sanders introduced the bill Thursday. "America's schools are facing a five-alarm crisis because of the educator shortages that have been decades in the making and exacerbated by the pandemic. Together, we must recruit large numbers of diverse educators into the profession and retain qualified and experienced educators in our schools to support our students in learning recovery and thriving in today's world. To do that, we must have competitive career-based pay to recruit and retain educators."
"On behalf of the three million members of the National Education Association, I thank Chairman Sanders for introducing the Teacher Pay Act," she added. "We urge senators to support educators and cosponsor this commonsense legislation that invests in our students, educators, and public schools."