WASHINGTON – A panel of policymakers and educators, including author Dave Eggers and former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, gathered at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday to promote the American Teacher Act.
The bill, if passed, would authorize the federal government to create four-year grants for states to enact and enforce minimum school teacher salary requirements of $60,000 or more. The program would start in fiscal 2024. It would not mandate teacher raises.
“We’re here today to advocate for our teachers, our educators, our saving grace that rescues families and our children every day,” said Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Florida, sponsor of the bill and a former school teacher. “We want our teachers to be paid a livable wage. A wage that is fair, a wage that is commensurate with today’s economy.”
Rep. Wilson introduced the American Teacher Act in the House of Representatives on Dec. 14, and is expected to re-introduce it in this Congress, though it’s likely to run into opposition from Republicans who control the chamber.
The legislation states that 15% of the four-year federal grants could support state-level educational agencies, while the remaining 85% must go directly to a state’s local school districts.
The bill includes a cost-of-living adjustment that would peg teacher salaries to inflation, along with a clause allowing for a national awareness campaign on the importance and work of teachers.
Phelton Moss, a senior policy adviser to Wilson, said that the bill also incorporates a maintenance-of-effort provision that requires states not to pull back on their commitment to a $60,000 minimum salary, if they are to keep their funding. Additional language inside the bill would ensure states prioritize Title I schools and districts in distributing funds.
In the 2020-2021 school year, public school teachers made $61,600 while working 52 hours per week, on average. Yet there is significant variation in teacher salary between states.
Mississippi, the lowest-paying state for teachers in the 2020-2021 school year, paid an average of $46,862, according to the National Education Association. Meanwhile, in New York, the average teacher salary sat at $90,222.
‘Heroes’ struggle to stay afloat
Wilson commended the dedication of school teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic, who taught online or went door-to-door to instruct students who lacked access to technology.
”It was during this time that the world finally saw what we’d known for years, that teachers are heroes,” she said. “They deserve a livable, competitive salary that accurately reflects the importance of their role in society.”
Wilson said that 1 in 5 teachers across the country currently works a second job to supplement their income, and more than 9,000 districts across the country pay teachers less than $40,000 per year.
She said this lack of adequate pay is largely contributing to some reports of a teacher shortage affecting school districts.
“We should be embarrassed,” Wilson said. “The teacher shortage is among the most pressing threats to education access today. And we must address it. Our classrooms are at stake, our children are at stake, and the future of our country is at stake.”
Ellen Sherratt of the Teacher Salary Project said that during her 20 years of experience as an economist analyzing teacher salaries and shortages, the pay gap and morale of teachers is the worst it has ever been.
Last fall, the Economic Policy Institute performed an analysis of teacher pay trends from 1970 to 2021, and found that teachers earn 23.5% less on average compared to their peers of similar educational backgrounds.
Sherratt also said that 62% of parents surveyed in a PDK poll on public schools last year said they did not want their child to go into teaching, with low pay the top-listed reason.
Rodney Robinson, the 2019 National Teacher of the Year, estimated that roughly 50% of the Ubers and Lyfts he takes during the week are driven by schoolteachers. The Richmond, Virginia resident added that one of these Uber drivers was a former teacher in Alabama. The driver was studying to be a principal, and had to quit his job as a teacher to pay for school.
“We really need to re-examine what we are doing as a country,” Robinson said. “If teachers — who are our most prized possessions, who raise the next generation — have to quit or take on another job just to make ends meet.”
Nicholas Ferroni, a history teacher at Union High School in Union, New Jersey, added that teaching is one of the few jobs in which people can have the greatest impact on the greatest number of people. Ferroni lamented the fact that teachers have to use GoFundMe to “beg for supplies.”
“I’m just here because I don’t want to marry rich, become an administrator, or switch jobs,” Ferroni said. “I do want to stay in the classroom.”
Teachers and students’ futures
Duncan, the former education secretary, said the impacts of a good teacher are not just test scores and graduation rates, but financial security. He said that an economic analysis from Raj Chetty showed that one good middle-school teacher raised the lifetime earnings of a given class by $250,000.
“So you think about putting two good teachers back-to-back, or three good teachers back-to-back,” Duncan said. “What does that do for young people in perpetuity?”
Duncan also spoke to the institutional barriers to socioeconomic equity that high-quality education can surmount.
“No kid grows up wanting to be poor,” Duncan said. “The only way I know how to break the cycles of poverty and create upward mobility is to create opportunity. Getting great teachers where we need them most is critically important.”
Robinson said the bill could reduce barriers for people of color in entering the profession, and eroding the national achievement gap.
“People don’t understand the extra burden for people of color to take on more student loan debt,” Robinson said. “We know having educators of color, teachers that look like their students, is the most important thing to lowering that achievement gap and increasing graduation rates.”
“By increasing teacher salaries, we can make a dedication to increasing diversity in the teacher workforce.”
Moss said that there are still details yet to be finalized in the teacher salary bill, including the concrete definition of “teacher” and provisions for veteran educators.
Robinson added that he sees this bill inevitably facing resistance, yet that blowback should not deter its supporters.
“You know, pious D.C.,” Robinson said. “‘How are we gonna pay for this? How are we gonna do this?’”
“How can we afford not to pay for this? This is an issue of national security.”
Duncan challenged claims from some teachers that the American Teachers Act represents federal overreach. “Education is the ultimate bipartisan issue,” Duncan said. “This is nation-building. Our teacher workforce in our country is the best offense for our nation.”
Robinson added that the bill will put pressure on states to raise and maintain wages even after the grant is over, as they face competition from other states paying teachers more, who leave to work in a higher-paying community.
Eggers praises his teachers
After the roundtable, Eggers talked about the “uninterrupted string of extraordinary teachers” in his education during an interview with States Newsroom. The author said that he still sends his books in manuscript form to a former high school English teacher, Peter Ferry, who is one of his first readers.
“Every single study that has ever tested what’s the most important thing in a student’s education — it’s not the color of the paint on the walls, or the facilities,” Eggers said. “The very most important thing is the teachers. It’s a school. It has to be teachers first.”
The author emphasized that if the pay schedule for teachers rises, talent will enter and stay in the profession, and the nation will grow to recognize the value of what teachers bring to the table.
“We know there’s a crisis,” Eggers said. “ We have hundreds of thousands of empty classrooms. We have schools that only have one or two qualified teachers. This is maybe the most urgent moment in the last 150 years. And so there isn’t any other option. We have to start somewhere.”