New Study Finds Record Pay Gap Between Educators and Other College-Educated Workers
Teacher walkouts over low pay and cuts to school funding appear to be continuing into the new school year. They could be bolstered by a new study showing that teachers now earn 11.1 percent less than comparable professionals, representing a record pay gap between educators and other college-educated workers.
Teachers are earning almost 2 percent less than they did in 1999 and 5 percent less than their 2009 pay, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Frustration with this sad state of affairs finally hit the boiling point earlier this spring, when teachers by the thousands in six states — West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Colorado — walked out of their classrooms, most of them demanding better pay and more funding for education. The results of their protests, while mixed, appear to have emboldened more teachers to continue the effort into the new school year.
For example, beginning in August, teachers in more than a dozen districts in Washington state went on strike over contract negotiations, affecting about 11 percent of the state’s 1.1 million school children. Teachers in Los Angeles, which is the second-largest school district in the nation, have overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike, which could take place next month. “And teachers in North Carolina, who protested in droves at the state capital in May, forcing schools across the state to close, are weighing future collective actions this year,” according to Education Week. Finally, in Louisiana, where the average teacher salary in 2016-17 was $50,000 (which is comparable to North Carolina’s), the Louisiana Federation of Teachers surveyed about 4,000 educators in May to see who would support a mass strike, and just over 60 percent of respondents said they would support a statewide walkout.
Now, a recent study provides new support for teachers’ complaints over salaries. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the “teacher pay penalty” for all public school teachers – that is, the percent by which public school teachers are paid less than comparable workers — has grown substantially since the mid-1990s.
The teacher wage penalty was 1.8 percent in 1994, grew to 4.3 percent in 1996, and reached a record 18.7 percent in 2017. This reflects the relative wage gap, regression-adjusted for education, experience, and other factors known to affect earnings. In plain dollars-and-cents English, average weekly wages of public school teachers (adjusted for inflation) decreased $27 from 1996 to 2017, from $1,164 to $1,137 (in 2017 dollars). In contrast, weekly wages of other college graduates increased $137 over this same period, from $1,339 to $1,476. (Appendix C of the report shows public school teacher and nonteacher college graduate weekly wages, by state.)
This wage penalty is also larger for male teachers than for women. In 2017, female public school teachers were making 15.6 percent less in wages than comparable female workers, but the weekly wage penalty for male teachers is worse: in 2017, male public school teachers were making 26.8 percent less in wages than comparable male workers.
The report also contains a chart showing the teacher wage penalty, by state. Overall, there is no state where teacher pay is equal to or better than that of other college graduates. Wyoming, Rhode Island, and Arkansas have the most modest wage penalties, of approximately 5 percent or less, and these three are the only states with penalties lower than 10 percent. Other states with large wage penalties, in addition to those that were the subject of strikes this spring, are Virginia, Missouri, New Mexico, Utah, and Alabama — all exceeding 29 percent. In 16 states, public school teacher weekly wages lag by more than 25 percent.
But what about benefits, such as pensions and health insurance? They should also be considered as part of the total compensation package, and teachers do enjoy more valuable benefits packages than other professionals. Without taking these into account, relative teacher wages could overstate the teacher disadvantage in total compensation.
However, EPI does take these benefits into account. The 2017 wage penalty for 2017, 18.7 percent, was offset by the EPI’s estimate of a 7.6 percent benefit advantage. However, this still produced the record-setting 11.1 percent total teacher compensation penalty for 2017.
The EPI report draws several conclusions related to this pay gap:
The opportunity cost of becoming a teacher and remaining in the profession becomes more and more important as relative teacher pay falls further behind that of other professions.
The large wage penalty for male teachers likely is a key reason why the gender mix of teachers has not changed much over time.
That women, once a somewhat captive labor pool for the teaching profession, have many more opportunities outside the profession today than in the past means that growing wage and compensation penalties will make it all the more difficult to recruit and retain high-quality teachers.
The ever-increasing costs of higher education and burdensome student loans are also a barrier to the teaching profession in light of a widening pay gap.
EPI also stresses that notwithstanding the advantage in benefits, the wage penalty, on its own, is “critically important as it is only earnings that families can put toward making ends meet—its only earnings that can pay for expenses such as rent, food, and student loan payments.”
The bottom line? As EPI notes, providing teachers with a decent middle-class living commensurate with other professionals with similar education “is not simply a matter of fairness.” “Effective teachers are the most important school-based determinant of student educational performance,” EPI points out, and to ensure a high-quality teaching workforce, “schools must retain experienced teachers and recruit high-quality students into the profession.” “Pay is an important component of retention and recruitment,” EPI concludes.
“When the national average starting salary for a teacher is $38,617, according to the National Education Association, while the average salary for recent college grads overall is about $50,400 annually, is it any wonder that fewer students are opting for a degree in education,” asked Maureen Westgard, NCTR’s Executive Director. “Adequate, reliable retirement benefits are very important in recruiting and retaining a well-qualified teacher workforce, but as this study shows, the advantages do not totally offset the overall pay penalty,” she continued. “There may be a number of reasons for the teacher shortages that every state is facing, but I think this pay issue is certainly a major factor,” she concluded.
Will the teacher unrest over salaries continue? The teachers appear to have the public’s support. Two recent national polls found that Americans are largely in favor of higher teacher pay and they also support teachers’ right to go on strike. And a poll found that nearly half of people who were told the average teacher salary in their state said the pay should increase, which represents a 13 percent increase over last year, which researchers attribute to the teacher walkouts.
Also, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June in Janus v. the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which now prohibits public-employee unions from collecting “agency” or “fair share” fees from workers who decline to become members, may also serve to lead to more political activism, some observers believe.
For example, Jon Shelton, an associate professor of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, told Education Week that teachers’ unions seem inspired by the wave of teacher activism last spring, even adopting similar strategies. “You’re seeing teachers’ unions … specifically linking the needs of teachers with the needs of students,” he said. Shelton thinks that the red-state actions in the spring, along with “a real state of galvanization” in the aftermath of the Janus case, could result in teachers moving in a more militant direction in blue states as well.
And then there are the upcoming November elections. Some 550 educators will be on election ballots, according to the NEA, running for everything from local school board to governor. And at least 20 educators filed to run for Congress this cycle. While their issues vary, and they come from both political parties, US News and World Report says that there seems to be a common theme of concern with the neglect in state K-12 education budgets.
NCTR members who attended the Annual Conference in Providence, Rhode island, in 2016 will already be familiar with one such teacher. She is Jahana Hayes, a former history teacher in Connecticut who was the National Teacher of the Year in 2016, and spoke at the Conference. Hayes won the Democratic primary in Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District, and if she wins in the general election in November, she would be the first African-American Democrat in the state to serve in Congress.
Teachers are increasingly involved in many political debates. Their total compensation will continue to be a major part of the discussion of the future of education in America, and their benefits will be an important part of this debate.