“I work 3 jobs and donate blood plasma to pay the bills,” announces Hope Brown, a 52-year-old teacher from Kentucky in Katie Reilly’s recent article for TIME magazine.
“Utility companies do not care that you had a great day with one of your students,” says NaShonda Cooke, a teacher and single mother of two in North Carolina. “I can’t tell you how many letters I got this summer that said final notice.”
Meanwhile, Elaine Hutchison, an award-winning teacher who has been teaching for a quarter of a century, makes about as much as her mother made before her when she first started in the 1970s.
Anyone who’s read our previous blog post on the struggles many teachers have making ends meet shouldn’t be surprised by the stories of teachers like Brown, Cooke, and Hutchison. But these stories reflect an unfortunate reality in which teacher salaries continue to be outpaced by inflation, districts are being squeezed by statehouses, and career educators are forced to push back.
The estimated public school teacher’s salary is now $58,950, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But as Reilly points out, actual wages vary by state and often don’t take into account the cost of living. The numbers also fail to account for teachers’ qualifications relative to their peers. In 2016, the starting salary for a teacher was $38,617, which is 20 percent lower than other professions requiring a college degree.
Those who once dreamed of entering the teaching profession are now hesitating. According to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, between 2008 and 2016 the number of new teachers finishing programs plummeted by 23 percent, with at least 17 percent leaving the profession.
Apologists for low teacher wages often cite summer break as a reason for low pay. But many teachers end up working year round attending professional development courses, engaging in continuing education, and running summer education programs at their schools when they aren’t teaching during the year.
Moreover, about 40 percent of teachers are not covered by Social Security thanks to states’ reliance on pension plans, which require that teachers stay in the same state in order to collect their pensions. This is a big problem for the majority of new teachers who don’t remain in the same area long enough to qualify.
According to Reilly, states seem to be tightening—not loosening—the teacher squeeze, particularly in places like Oklahoma and Arizona. Adjusted for inflation, over the last decade salaries in Oklahoma actually decreased by $8,000, and teacher wages in Arizona fell by $5,000. And apart from salaries, 29 states are still spending less per student than they did before the Great Recession.
Many see the teacher squeeze as a direct result of an escalating war on public education and teachers’ unions, a sentiment stoked by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
“I think we need to stay focused on what’s right for kids,” DeVos argues, “and I hope that adults would keep adult disagreements and disputes in a separate place, and serve the students that are there to be served.”
DeVos’ rhetoric places teachers’ rights in direct opposition to those of children, failing to consider how a struggling class of teachers inevitably robs children of quality educational opportunities.
Public support for teachers
Despite the criticism often levied against teachers, public support for them is widespread and bipartisan. In fact, recent polling suggests that nearly 60 percent of people think that teachers are underpaid, with the majority of both Democrats and Republicans affirming their right to strike.
The shift in public perception looks to be creating a shift in how America values its teachers. And teachers are now fighting to reverse the course of decades of depreciation.
In Los Angeles, for example, teachers recently voted to authorize a strike over key issues like teacher pay and class size, while in Washington teachers in a number of districts are already on strike. And in West Virginia, striking teachers saw a wage increase of 5 percent within nine days of walking out.
“We have to organize even harder and even broader,” argues Rosa Jimenez, a teacher in Los Angeles. “People are fired up.”
LRN’s mission statement and teachers’ rights
In our continued support of teachers, LRN hopes to provide more opportunities to improve educators’ capacity to teach effectively and monetize work. This is especially true of work done outside the classroom, which is often overlooked and poorly reflected in teacher salaries. We recognize the value of that effort and want all teachers to be able to extend their reach.
By helping teachers receive fair compensation, LRN hopes to create a better educational system for both educators and students.