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Teacher salaries become a bipartisan cause: Low pay ‘a major crisis in education’

Having met and fallen in love through their careers as special education teachers, Natalia Sandoval and her husband tried to make it work as long as they could. But after a while, they could no longer get by on two teacher salaries while raising two sons in Hawaii, not to mention paying back the student loan debt they’d accumulated so they could train to work with students with disabilities.

Shortly before the pandemic, Sandoval’s husband Joseph traded in the career he loved for one that would keep their family afloat: as a worker on the docks. It helps pay the bills and may even allow them to buy a house one day, but it’s hardly as rewarding, said Sandoval, who knew from an early age growing up on Oahu that she wanted to be a teacher, specifically in special education.

“I stay because I really enjoy working with the kids. … And I like supporting the families more than anything because it's a very difficult world to navigate,” Sandoval said.

But veteran teachers like her and Joseph are often forced to decide whether the job is worth the sacrifices. “We're just surviving, not thriving.”

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Natalia Sandoval, a special education teachers at Waikiki Elementary School in Hawaii, does an activity with a student. Hawaii, like most states, suffers from a shortage of special education teachers.

Teacher pay is again in the news, with both Democratic President Joe Biden and Republican Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders vowing to raise educators’ salaries in their addresses to the nation last Tuesday night. Lawmakers in a number of states, both blue and red, have introduced or passed legislation boosting educators’ salaries over the past year or so.

A bill before the U.S. House would incentivize states to raise teacher pay, setting a minimum salary of $60,000. And Sen. Bernie Sanders, the new chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, will soon introduce similar legislation.

Raising teacher pay has become an issue of rare bipartisan consensus, suggested Sanders, who shared initial details of his plan exclusively with USA TODAY ahead of a teacher town hall he is hosting with the country's largest teachers unions Monday evening. Against that backdrop, Sanders says the issue will be one of his top priorities.

“We’re in the midst of a major crisis in education, and if we are going to have the best educational system in the world – which we should have, which we must have – we’re going to have to very much change our attitude toward teachers,” Sanders said.

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How much do teachers make?

Nationally, the average starting salary for a teacher is less than $42,000, while teachers of all levels of experience make about $61,000.

Those numbers mask significant variation from state to state, however. See this breakdown from the NEA to see what teacher salaries look like in your state.

In additionthere are lots of prerequisites to becoming a teacher, including a bachelor’s and often master’s degree, student-teaching experience and an exam-based license. Yet compared with similar college-educated workers, teachers make less than 77 cents on the dollar.

This “teacher pay penalty” has grown over the decades, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, hitting a new high in 2021. In 1996, teachers made close to 92 cents on the dollar.

Teacher shortages:Some schools are turning to unorthodox solutions

Bernie Sanders: $60,000 minimum needed to solve teacher shortages

“If our goal is the best educational system in the world, if our goal is to be able to attract the best and the brightest young people into education, we're going to have to substantially raise our teacher salary,” Sanders said, pointing to shortages of teachers ravaging some parts of the country. “In my view, that must be at least a $60,000 a year.”

Teacher shortages:They hurt disadvantaged students the most

Sanders’s bill would triple federal funding through estate tax increases targeting the wealthiest Americans. It would pump roughly $450 billion total in new mandatory federal funding into every district, starting with $40 billion in the 2024 fiscal year. Districts would then have to use that money at least in part to raise teachers' base pay. 

bill recently reintroduced in the House by Democrats would, through grants, incentivize states and districts to similarly increase teachers’ base salary to $60,000.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks to the media outside the West Wing of the White House last July.

“President Biden said during the State of the Union address, ‘Let's give public school teachers a raise.' Republicans and Democrats gave a rousing applause because it is long overdue,” said Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson, a co-sponsor of the bill, in a statement.

Experts stress better compensation is just part of the solution. “We absolutely need to (raise teacher salaries), but that alone is not enough,” said Tequilla Brownie of The New Teacher Project. “We have to also address the other pieces that go with it, like working conditions, the culture, the way we support teachers.”

Working extra hours, jobs to pay off student loans

Sandoval has received some pay bumps, including a temporary $10,000-a-year bonus for Hawaii special education teachers designed to alleviate shortages in that and other hard-to-staff areas. She also has after-school gigs as a tutor, and in the past has worked in administrative roles.

Nearly 1 in 5 teachers have a job outside the school system, according to recent federal survey data. That’s on top of spending 52 hours weekly in their teaching position (fewer than half of which they spent actually teaching).

If it weren’t for that supplemental income, teachers like Sandoval say it’d be difficult to pay their bills and pay off student debt. Nearly half of educators took out student loans to pay for college, according to data from the National Education Association, and owe $58,700 on average.

Very few educators have had their loans forgiven through a federal program for people who work in public service.

Student loan forgiveness:With Biden plan in legal limbo, Feds seek changes to rules for another debt relief option

States that have raised teacher pay

The prospects of federal legislation boosting teacher pay are questionable at best. Many Republicans resist the idea of setting such policies at the federal level.

But at the state level, both Democratic and Republican governors have enacted legislation increasing teacher pay. Some examples:

  • New Mexico: Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, in spring 2022 signed into law a bill that increases base salaries by 20% on average. It faced no opposition in the Legislature.
  • Florida: Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, last year announced increases to the state budget allowing a teacher’s starting salary to be bumped up to $47,000.
  • Mississippi: Teachers saw their largest pay hike in decades after Republican Gov. Tate Reeves signed into law increases averaging $5,100, raising salaries by more than 10%.
  • Governors in states ranging from Delaware to Tennessee have proposed teacher raises this legislative session.
New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks at a news conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders's education plan

Among the most prominent Republicans rallying around teacher pay: Huckabee Sanders, who unveiled her education plan shortly after delivering the Republican Party’s response to Biden’s 2023 State of the Union.

The so-called Arkansas LEARNS Plan would increase teachers’ base salary from $36,000 to $50,000. It would also “reward good teachers” with bonuses of up to $10,000 each.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders delivers the Republican response to President Joe Biden's State of the Union address earlier this month.

The Arkansas Education Association, the state’s teachers union, said it appreciated the emphasis on educator compensation but warned against other aspects of Huckabee Sanders’s proposal.

In Utah, Republican Gov. Spencer Cox just signed a bill that would allow parents to use public dollars on private school tuition, and it raised teacher salaries. Huckabee Sanders' plan is similar, allowing public funds to be spent on private schooling and limiting instruction about race and gender identity.

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