The Push for a $60K Base Teacher Salary Gains Steam as Bernie Sanders Signs On

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Sen. Bernie Sanders will soon introduce legislation to pay teachers a minimum of $60,000 a year, complementing similar efforts in the House as the conversation about low teacher wages picks up steam.

Sanders, the independent from Vermont who is the chairman of the Senate’s health, education, labor, and pensions committee, announced his plans to introduce the Pay Teachers Act at a town hall that he hosted on Monday evening. During the conversation, Sanders and the presidents of the two national teachers’ unions decried what they called the “teacher pay crisis,” arguing that it was a primary reason for ongoing staff shortages in schools across the country.

“I want the day to come, sooner than later, when we are going to attract the best and brightest young people in our country into teaching,” Sanders said. “I want those young people to be proud of the profession they have chosen. I want them to teach in underserved communities, and I want them to help produce the most educated kids in the world. In order to accomplish those goals, we have got to pay teachers in America what they deserve.”

Sanders said his legislation would triple Title I funding for low-income schools and increase wages for veteran teachers after they’ve been working on the job for 10, 20, or 30 years, in addition to setting the salary floor. The bill hasn’t yet been filed, so the text of the proposal hasn’t been released.

To pay for this, Sanders pointed to legislation that he has recently introduced to reform the estate tax—legislation that would raise about $450 billion over the next decade, “precisely how much the Teacher Pay Act would cost,” he said.

“Let’s be clear: If we can provide over a trillion dollars in tax breaks to the top 1 percent and large corporations, please don’t tell me that we cannot afford to make sure that every teacher in America is paid at least $60,000 a year,” Sanders said.

The Senate bill would complement the American Teacher Act pending in the House, which was first introduced in December, and then reintroduced in the new Congress last week by Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., and Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y. That bill would incentivize states and school districts to increase the minimum teacher salary to $60,000 and provide yearly adjustments for inflation through new federal grants.

Teachers make less than other college-educated workers

Nationally, public school teachers made an average base salary of $61,600 in the 2020-21 school year, according to the most recent federal data. The average starting salary for a teacher is less than $42,000.

Teacher salaries vary significantly from state to state. Teachers in New York, for example, made on average $90,222 in the 2020-21 school year—and teachers in Mississippi made an average of $46,862. There are further variations from city to city.

Many teachers supplement their base salaries by leading extracurricular activities or through performance bonuses, and nearly 17 percent of public school teachers held a job outside the school system during the school year, the 2020-21 federal data shows.

Additional research has found that teachers earn, on average, 76.5 cents on the dollar compared with what other college graduates earn in other professions. This “teacher pay penalty” has gotten worse in the last two decades, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank supported partially by teachers’ unions.

Two years ago, the top three billionaires in America made more money than every single U.S. kindergarten teacher combined, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said during the town hall: “Who contributed more to America two years ago? … The question answers itself.”

As those in the field sound the alarm of a weakening teacher pipeline, state and local leaders of both political parties have worked to boost teacher salaries in the past couple years.

  • In New Mexico, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed legislation last year that increased teachers’ minimum salaries by $10,000 and raised base salaries an average of 20 percent.
  • In Mississippi, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves approved the largest teacher salary increase in the state’s recent history last year. Teachers received an average raise of about $5,1000—an increase of more than 10 percent.
  • In Tennessee, Republican Gov. Bill Lee this month announced a proposal to raise teacher salaries from $41,000 to $50,000 over the next four years.
  • In Delaware, Democratic Gov. John Carney announced a budget proposal that would give teachers in the state a 9 percent raise. (The state would cover most of that bump, but local districts would have to chip in as well.)
  • In Arkansas, Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders introduced a proposal this month that would increase the minimum starting teacher salary from $36,000 to to $50,000.

President Joe Biden also called for teachers to get a pay raise in his State of the Union address earlier this month.

‘A shortage of respect’

During the town hall, Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, and Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, both sounded the alarm of worsening teacher shortages.

There are no national data that show a recent mass exodus of teachers. But surveys suggest that record numbers of teachers are thinking about leaving earlier than planned. And there have been widespread reports of staffing shortages in schools, including for certain teaching positions, particularly special education and high school math and science.

“The truth is, there’s no shortage of people who would like to answer the call to guide, love, teach the next generation,” Pringle said. “Rather, what we have across this country is a shortage of professional pay for our educators. We have a shortage of basic dignity; a shortage of respect for the people who have dedicated their lives to educating America’s students—which means we have a shortage of people who are willing to take on the immense responsibility without the requisite recognition of the critical role they play in our society and in this democracy.”

The profession being subject to political attacks has not helped matters, Pringle added. Teachers have reported feeling stressed and anxious about legal restrictions on classroom conversations about race and gender.

Sanders also invited four teachers to share their experiences during the town hall. The educators spoke of the mental health challenges for both students and staff that the pandemic exacerbated, as well as the impact of low pay on themselves and aspiring teachers.

“The big issue for us is the lack of respect, and the No. 1 way you can show respect systematically is through a significant pay raise,” said Jacob Fertig, an art teacher in West Virginia.

Arthur Anderson said he’s been working as a teacher’s assistant in Virginia for the past 31 years, and he only made $31,000 this past year. Still, he’s in school full-time to become a teacher—a career he’s pursuing because he has struggled with dyslexia and wants to inspire his own students going through similar challenges.

“I came to change lives,” he said. “I’m a teacher because I change lives. I have a passion for what I do, and I have a passion for what I’m going to continue to [do to] fight for my kids.”

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