Teachers on strike over low wages.

Los Angeles public school support staff, teachers, and supporters rally outside of the school district headquarters on the first day of a three day strike in Los Angeles, California, on March 21, 2023.

(Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

The Poverty of Education When We Make Our Teachers Poor

In the richest country in the world, we can do so much better. What will it take to reverse the trend?

Teacher shortages have been reported in all fifty states, and 86 percent of public schools are hard pressed to fill vacant teaching positions. Low pay is often cited as a cause of the shortages. Let’s put that in context.

On average, teacher pay in the United States is nearly 25 percent less than what other college graduates receive, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). If you are a teacher in New Hampshire, as I am, your paycheck is nearly 30 percent less than other college graduates. Let that sink in.

People who go into teaching are taking on the same level of debt as other college graduates (or more), yet they are receiving nowhere near the same financial benefits. The typical U.S. graduate with a four year degree walked away with their diploma and $29,417 in debt in 2022. In my home state, the average debt for a bachelor’s degree topped the nation at an astounding $39,928.

Undoubtedly, this economic reality of the teaching profession is having an impact on teacher prep programs, which are seeing a drastic reduction in the number of enrollees. This in turn means fewer new teachers entering the profession. When the cost of a degree is paired with the “teacher pay penalty,” to use EPI’s terminology, the math is undeniable: politicians are shortchanging teachers.

In my more than a decade of working in public schools, I can attest to the fact that teachers are selfless. But we can only carry so much for so long. We’re only human.

Teachers are being paid roughly seventy cents on the dollar for their labor. If most other jobs had this kind of wage disparity during a labor shortage, employers would increase wages to attract qualified professionals into the field. Instead, what we’re seeing are rightwing activists using fear tactics, book bans targeting Black and LGBTQ+ histories, and direct threats to the livelihood of teachers in an attempt to erode confidence in public schools. These attacks have a high price: the financial future of educators.

In my more than a decade of working in public schools, I can attest to the fact that teachers are selfless. But we can only carry so much for so long. We’re only human. It’s time we exclaim with a collective and unified voice: Pay teachers more! Local, state and federal governments must invest in public educators now. We cannot afford to balance society’s books on the backs of teachers.

Fair pay and freedom to read might sound “far out” after a year that saw a record number of books banned and a record income gap between teachers and other professions.

The truth is every community in America needs to come together for our schools, our profession, and our communities now more than ever. Every student deserves a dedicated teacher and every teacher deserves fair pay for their dedication.

Educators have long been asked to carry the burden of underfunding. But the data shows that in the not so distant past, things were a bit more fair when it comes to educator pay. In 1996, the difference between teacher wages and other college grads was about $300 per week. Today, that difference is over twice that and rising.

The shrinking purchasing power of educators coincides with classroom jobs being more difficult and demanding. Every educator strives to create classrooms of compassionate care, but the day to day experiences and the broader data show that we are facing a systemic crisis when it comes to the mental health of young people. Widespread anxiety and hopelessness among students must be taken seriously and responded to with increased investment in public schools. We cannot continue to ask the schools that serve those that have the greatest needs to do so with least resources.

In the richest country in the world, we can do so much better. What will it take to reverse the trend?

We need our unions to be reinvigorated by the transformative energy and passion of classroom educators. From early educators who teach the ABCs to the high school teachers who teach calculus, we need everyone to pull together to defend our public schools, the pillar of our democratic way of life.

We must draw inspiration from our brothers and sisters across the country and find common cause with those battling inequity in other industries. We can see the gains that are rapidly being made by teachers in Los Angeles and by workers in other sectors, such as with the Writers Guild of America, the United Auto Workers, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, whose successful strikes resulted in significant pay increases and other concessions.

UAW President Shawn Fain and President Joe Biden agree that “record profits should mean record contracts.” The present economic conditions favor workers more than any time in the past two decades. States with significant budget surpluses must make significant investments in teachers and public schools. This includes states like Texas, where the $32.7 billion surplus could be used to attract and retain professional educators, a step toward redressing chronically low pay.

Public support for labor continues to be at a generational high. Seventy-five percent of the public believes that teachers are underpaid. And a majority of the public hold a favorable view of their own local educators. Now is our time. Let’s reverse the trends of widening wealth gaps.

Economic justice for educators means providing financial support to the schools that serve all students. Raises for public school educators must reflect our professional status and our contributions to community life. Educators must earn wages that match those with similar educational backgrounds and experience in other fields.

This kind of investment is something that will take political will that must be cultivated in each community with the people who know those communities the best—educators, parents, and people who see how our way of life is intricately intertwined with quality public schools.

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