Teacher appreciation? Try better pay, more governors say
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — As schools across the country struggle to find teachers to hire, more governors are pushing for pay increases, bonuses and other perks for the beleaguered profession — with some vowing to beat out other states competing for educators.
Already in 2023, governors in Georgia and Arkansas have pushed through teacher pay increases. Ahead of Monday's start of national Teacher Appreciation Week, others — both Republican and Democratic — have proposed doing the same to attract and retain educators.
More than half of the states' governors over the past year — 26 so far — have proposed boosting teacher compensation, according to groups that track it. The nonprofit Teacher Salary Project said it is the most it has seen in nearly two decades of tracking.
"Today we have governors left and right from every political party and then some who are addressing this issue because they have to," said founder and CEO Ninivé Caligari. "We've never seen what we are seeing right now. Never."
In Idaho, Gov. Brad Little is aiming to raise the state's average starting salary into the nation's top 10. In Delaware, Gov. John Carney said competition for teachers is more intense than ever and a pay increase is necessary to "win the competition with surrounding states."
It's not clear how far pay raises will go toward relieving the shortages, though, and some teachers say it is too little, too late to fix problems that are years in the making.
Blame for teacher shortages has fallen on underfunding after the Great Recession, tight labor markets, lackluster enrollments in colleges and programs that train teachers and teacher burnout inflamed by the travails of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There has been no mass exodus, but data from some states that track teacher turnover has shown rising numbers of teachers leaving the profession over the past couple years.
Shortages are most extreme in certain areas, including the poorest or most rural districts, researchers say. Districts also report particular difficulties in hiring for in-demand subjects like special education, math and science.
Meanwhile, teacher salaries have fallen further and further behind those of their college-educated peers in other fields, as teachers report growing workloads, shrinking autonomy and increasingly hostile school environments.
Magan Daniel, who at 33 just left her central Alabama school district, was not persuaded to stay by pay raises as Alabama's governor vows to make teacher salaries the highest in the Southeast. It would take big increases to match neighboring Georgia, where the average teacher salary is $62,200, according to the National Education Association.
Fixing teachers' deteriorating work culture and growing workloads would be a more powerful incentive than a pay raise, she said.
She recalled, for instance, her principal asking her to make copies and lesson plans last fall while she was on unpaid maternity leave. Difficulty getting substitutes puts pressure on teachers who need time off for emergencies, she said, and spending nights and weekends on paperwork siphoned the joy out of teaching.
"I would not go back just for a higher salary," Daniel said.
In Oklahoma, Joshua Morgan, 46, left his rural district a year ago because after 18 years he was still earning under $47,000. Oklahoma's governor is talking about awarding performance bonuses, but Morgan said he would only go back to teaching for substantially more money — like $65,000 a year.
The national average public school teacher salary in 2021-22 increased 2% from the previous year to $66,745, according to the NEA, the nation's largest teachers union. Inflation peaked around 9% at the time.
For new recruits, the math of paying for a college education is grim: The national average beginning teacher salary was $42,845 in 2021-22, according to the NEA. Teachers do often qualify for public service loan forgiveness, which forgives their student debt after they've made 10 years of monthly payments.
Besides fewer teachers getting certified, the "teacher pay penalty" — the gap between teacher salaries and their college-educated peers in other professions — is growing.
It reached a record 23.5% in 2021, with teachers earning an average 76.5 cents for every dollar earned by other college-educated professionals, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
It has been widening for decades, researchers say. For men, it is 35% and for women it is 17% — reflecting the gender pay gap seen across the U.S. economy.
For Rachaele Otto and other Louisiana teachers, the prospect of a $3,000 salary increase proposed by the governor might be appreciated. But at roughly $200 a month after taxes, it's not enough to keep a teacher who feels burned out or demoralized, Otto said.
"I know there are teachers willing to take pay cuts to leave the profession," said Otto, 38, a science teacher in a rural Louisiana district. "If you double the salary, maybe that would change their thinking."
Sylvia Allegretto, a senior economist who studies teacher compensation for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, called salary promises by governors one-time "Band-Aids" that barely keep up with inflation.
"You're kind of chipping away at the margins," Allegretto said. "You're not fixing the problem, generally."
For governors, raising teacher pay may be good politics, but raising it across the board may have little long-term impact. Getting better data on where the shortages are and then targeting raises — or bigger raises — to those areas will help more, researchers say.
Research shows a pay raise will have at least some effect on retaining teachers, said Ed Fuller, a Penn State associate professor who studies teacher quality and turnover. What is difficult to research, Fuller said, is the effect a raise has on a college student's decision to enter a teacher preparation program — and take on debt.
Some districts haven't waited for governors and legislatures to act.
Kentucky's biggest school district, Jefferson County in Louisville, gave a 4% raise last year and the board approved another raise of 5% to start this coming July. It also started giving an annual $8,000 stipend to teachers who work with higher-need students.
Superintendent Marty Pollio wants the district to be the highest paying in Kentucky, calling the teacher shortage "a real crisis and a growing crisis."
In Pennsylvania, the William Penn School District is offering signing bonuses for long-term subs and holding its first-ever teachers job fair.
Superintendent Eric Becoats said a teacher told him they can move to neighboring districts and make $10,000 more — something the relatively small and poor district cannot compete with right now.
Some teachers also tell him they will retire or leave the profession if they can.
Morgan said a major change in salary is required to overcome a major change in how teachers now view a profession where they once expected to stay until they retired.
"That's not how the world works anymore," Morgan said. "I'm seeing more educators, especially the younger ones, coming in and saying, 'I'm not willing to put up with this.'"
Brooke Schultz, a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative, contributed to this report. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Data reporter Sharon Lurye also contributed from New Orleans.