Democrats Push on “Teacher Pay Crisis”

Senator Sanders would set $60,000 nationwide salary minimum
Teachers Union Leaders Becky Pringle and Randi Weingarten look on earlier this month as a member of Congress, Frederica Wilson, speaks about legislation that would raise starting teacher pay to $60,000 a year.
Teachers Union Leaders Becky Pringle and Randi Weingarten look on earlier this month as a member of Congress, Frederica Wilson, speaks about legislation that would raise starting teacher pay to $60,000 a year.

Democrats are making a big push to raise teacher pay.

President Biden highlighted the issue in his State of the Union address. “Let’s give public school teachers a raise,” Biden said in the February 7, 2023, speech.

On February 9, two Democratic members of the House of Representatives, Frederica Wilson of Florida and Jamaal Bowman of New York, introduced the American Teacher Act. It would provide federal grants to support a base minimum annual salary of $60,000 for classroom teachers in public elementary or public secondary schools. The official congressional website shows 46 original cosponsors for the legislation, all of them Democrats. The bill was introduced at a Capitol Hill press conference at which the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, and the president of the National Education Association, Becky Pringle, both spoke.

On February 13, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, hosted what a press release from his office billed as a town hall on the “teacher pay crisis in America.”

In remarks at the event, Sanders denounced what he called “the pathetically low pay teachers receive.” He said the starting pay for teachers “in almost 40 percent of our school districts is less than $40,000 a year.”

Sanders, an independent socialist who caucuses with the Democrats, said he would introduce the “Pay Teachers Act” to “ensure all starting teachers across the country are paid at least $60,000 a year.” He proposed to pay for it by increasing taxes on those who “inherit over $3.5 million,” which he said would raise $450 billion over ten years.

Senator Edward Markey said he’d been marching with striking teachers in his home state of Massachusetts. “I’ve been on the lines with those teachers as they strike, because we need higher wages for teachers,” Markey said. “Educators in our country need a raise.”

At the Sanders town hall, Pringle said teachers are “underpaid and disrespected.”

“This is an engine-is-on-fire, call 911 moment,” she said, saying the pay levels are forcing teachers to “have two or more jobs” or “postpone having a family.”

Weingarten said, “We have to find a way to create the dignity and respect, and frankly pay is a way to do that.”

The 2022 Education Next Survey of Public Opinion found support for higher teacher salaries at the highest levels in the survey’s 15-year history, with more than 60 percent of the general public favoring a raise. Support was higher among Democrats than among Republicans. But some Republicans are also focusing on the issue: Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia enacted what he called “the largest teacher pay raise in state history,” $5,000 a teacher, and Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida has boasted of investing more than $2 billion in increased teacher pay, bringing average starting salaries to $47,000 from $40,000.

At the national level, Republicans have been more focused on proposing support for school choice than on raising teacher pay. A recent Republican education secretary who remains active on education policy issues, Betsy DeVos, greeted the Sanders town hall with a tweet that said, “Nothing to see here… just three friendly Socialists discussing how the state can further take control of your kids.” She added the hashtags #EducationFreedom #HostagesNoMore.

Focusing on salary rather than total compensation tells only part of the story, because teachers and other unionized public employees frequently have pension and health benefits that are valuable.

As DeSantis has apparently realized, focusing on the starting salaries is more likely to be a political winner, and also may serve the practical purpose of luring new teacher talent into classrooms. In some states, salaries for experienced teachers have climbed; in New York State, nearly a fifth of educators, or 66,617 of them, earn six-figure salaries, the Empire Center reported. Nationally, kindergarten and elementary school teachers earn median pay of $61,350 a year and high school teachers earn median pay of $61,820 a year, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The teacher pay issue relates to the inflation issue, which isn’t something that the Democrats were particularly eager to stress in their public remarks. The costs of things that entry-level teachers need to buy—eggs, gas, and rent—have been climbing faster, in many cases, than entry-level teacher salaries.

In the past, policymakers have sometimes tried to use teacher pay as a lever for school reform—raises linked to teacher performance, or higher pay for work in harder-to-staff subject areas, specialties, or schools, or higher pay in exchange for a longer school day. Those sorts of linkages, too, have been largely absent, at least so far, from this round of discussion.

Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.

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