Our View: Low pay won’t keep teachers

recent study from the Economic Policy Institute indicates teachers are significantly underpaid compared to other similar workers.

The information was included in a paper from EPI Distinguished Fellow Lawrence Mishel and UC Berkeley Economist and EPI Research Associate Sylvia Allegretto, who found teachers’ wages and compensation continue to fall relative to comparable workers. 

According to the paper, when adjusted for education, experience, and demographic factors, teachers earned 4.3 percent less than other workers in 1996, while in 2017 the teacher wage penalty grew to 18.7 percent.

Additionally, while teachers on average have better benefits packages than similar workers, those benefits don’t fully close the wage gap. Including benefits, teachers are still left with a record-high 11.1 percent compensation gap, according to the paper. That gap has grown substantially from 1994, when the gap faced by teachers was only 1.8 percent.

Some other key findings from the study include:

— Since 1996, teacher pay has decreased $27 per week (adjusted for inflation) from $1,164 to $1,137 in 2017. In this same time period, college graduates’ average weekly wages have increased from $1,339 to $1,476 in 2017.

— The wage penalty has grown remarkably among women. In 1960, female teachers earned 14.7 percent more than comparable female workers. However, in 2017, the authors find a 15.6 percent wage gap for female teachers.

— The wage penalty for male teachers is much larger. The male teacher wage gap was 22.1 percent in 1979 and improved to 15.1 percent in the mid-1990s, but worsened in the late 1990s into the early 2000s. It stood at 26.8 percent in 2017.

The full report can be found at epi.org/publication/teacher-pay-gap-2018.

This compensation gap is much of the reason why teachers in Kentucky, but also Washington, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, North Carolina and Colorado have gone on strike, rallying at capitol buildings and raising awareness about the unfair and increasingly widening pay gap.

Along with this substantial gap in pay, education is seeing unnecessary cutbacks in spending and budgets.

As one of the authors of the paper points out, teacher pay is about much more than fairly compensating workers. Unfair pay will make it more difficult to recruit and retain highly-skilled and qualified teachers. Without these passionate and qualified teachers, the future of education in many U.S. states looks bleak.

As the report states, “Effective teachers are the most important school-based determinant of student educational performance.”

Teachers often enter the career knowing they won’t make huge salaries, but also with hopes of making an impact. With such a significant gap in fair compensation, teachers’ altruistic nature won’t be enough to continue. They must also consider their families and financial obligations.

Legislators are doing an injustice to our educators with and consequently our students by having so much discussion of changing pensions and altering benefits and little discussion of how to retain teachers.

While we understand adjustment must be made to regain stable financial footing for the state, we can’t stand to see effective teachers walk away from the profession.

A balance must be found, and quickly.