Could the U.S. Soon See a Federal Minimum Salary for Teachers?

Teaching and Learning

Could the U.S. Soon See a Federal Minimum Salary for Teachers?

The American Teacher Act, introduced Dec. 14 in Congress, would establish a minimum salary of $60,000 for all public school teachers working in the U.S.

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Dec 14, 2022

Could the U.S. Soon See a Federal Minimum Salary for Teachers?

Rep. Frederica Wilson has long felt that American teachers are undervalued, an opinion that developed during her time as a classroom teacher, a principal, a school board member and, eventually, as a member of Congress. And she believes the wages teachers are paid do not reflect the importance of their role in society.

But Wilson, a Democrat from Florida, hopes to turn that around—starting today—with the introduction of the American Teacher Act, a bill that would establish a federal minimum salary of $60,000 for all public school teachers.

“This is an issue that’s always been present,” she tells EdSurge in a written response, “but we are at a crossroads, and we can choose to take this issue head-on or lose America’s teachers and have the education of our students severely impacted.”

The absence of action right now, Wilson writes, would “cause irreparable harm” and amount to “gambling” with the education of future generations.

The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Jamaal Bowman, another former educator, and seven other members of the House. It comes at what Wilson and other proponents say is a moment that requires decisive action to strengthen the beleaguered teaching profession.

“This is an opportunity to show our appreciation for educators and make up for the years we’ve undervalued this incredibly essential career,” Wilson says, adding that teachers were among the “heroes” of the pandemic. “Educators were the ones that stood ready to adapt and support our children mentally and emotionally through one of the most challenging periods in history.”

“The climate couldn’t be more ripe,” adds Nínive Calegari, co-founder and CEO of The Teacher Salary Project, a nonpartisan organization whose staff helped co-author the legislation.

Many teachers enter the field to answer a “calling,” in spite of its low-paying reputation. But in recent years, as teachers have been increasingly vilified by factions of the public, as the pandemic created a new cocktail of stressors and demands related to teaching and learning, as students have struggled in ways teachers are ill-equipped to address, and as the cost of goods and services has risen while salaries stagnated, more and more teachers have chosen to walk away. While teachers are leaving the profession for a range of reasons, many say they can no longer justify the demands of the work at their current pay.

A starting salary of $60,000 is hardly a rocketship into a new social class, but it would make a noticeable impact on the profession, which had a national average starting salary of $41,770 in the 2020-21 school year, according to the National Education Association, a teachers union that has come out in support of the American Teacher Act.

Earlier this year, the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank, released a report showing that the teacher wage gap reached an all-time high in 2021. Teachers in the U.S. earn, on average, about 77 cents on the dollar compared to their peers in similar professions.

As a result, the United States is experiencing what some are calling a teacher shortage and others, including Wilson, consider a “mass exodus.” (Some journalists and researchers have questioned the prevailing teacher-turnover narrative.)

Nicholas Ferroni, a public school educator, activist and social media influencer, says the fact that teachers are leaving the careers that, in many cases, they’d envisioned for themselves since childhood should “scare everyone.” Even he recently updated his resume, the first time in 10 years.

“It’s become the perfect storm of teachers at a breaking point,” says Ferroni, who teaches high school history and cultural studies in New Jersey. “Nobody is going into the profession. People are leaving the profession, and society is realizing teachers can transition to other jobs.”

The solution is likely as complex and varied as the problem itself. Yet, as in most industries, money goes a long way.

Perhaps teachers would be more willing to, say, learn a new curriculum or adapt to hybrid classrooms if they were given competitive salaries. Instead, at present, many teachers are just barely getting by, with almost one in five moonlighting in other jobs to supplement their incomes. Ferroni himself works as a bartender and content creator when he’s not in the classroom, and he has recently driven for Uber and waited tables, too.

Ferroni is far from an aberration among his peers in the profession, says Calegari, who has been talking with and documenting teachers’ financial plight for nearly 20 years now.

“I have really been so saddened over and over again to hear stories of teachers bartending, driving for Uber, housekeeping,” she says. “It’s been a long journey of collecting those stories. This is a really, really beautiful moment.”

The American Teacher Act is a bold effort to stem the brain drain from the profession and reinvigorate young people’s interest in entering it, says Calegari.

The bill is likely to face headwinds in Congress. All of its co-sponsors are from the Democratic Party, and their conservative colleagues tend to prefer that issues like teacher pay be left to decision makers at the state and local level. Still, there have been signs in recent years that Republican leaders want to raise teacher pay, and Wilson, for her part, says she “fully expects” her colleagues across the aisle to throw their support behind this bill.

“They know that at its core, this is a central component to the education woes facing our nation,” Wilson says of Republican members of Congress.

If passed, the American Teacher Act would likely have an outsized impact in red states. Republican-leaning states such as Missouri and Montana have average starting salaries below $35,000, and in many states, teachers can work years before surpassing a $50,000 salary.

A nearly 50 percent increase over the current average starting salary is significant. And yet it’s not without precedent. Recently, New Mexico, Maryland and Delaware have either proposed or passed legislation increasing starting salaries for teachers to $60,000. Dallas and Houston have done the same.

“I would be much happier with a six-figure minimum,” says Calegari, a former teacher herself. “But we had to be realistic and affordable, and $60,000 is [a figure] resonating around the country.”

If passed, the bill would authorize funding for a federal grant program aimed at incentivizing states and school districts to establish a minimum starting salary of $60,000 by the 2024-25 academic year. The funding—a projection for which does not yet exist—would offset costs to aid states and districts in implementing the new salary minimum, though states would be responsible for building plans for sustainability in the long run.

Once in effect, the new minimum salary would be adjusted for inflation each subsequent year, beginning with the 2025-26 school year. Grant funding provided to states and local education agencies for this purpose would have to be used toward salaries, and not to supplant any existing funding that goes toward schools, Wilson’s congressional office explains.

The $60,000 minimum is not intended to reward novice teachers while neglecting those who came before them. Instead, Wilson emphasizes that $60,000 is just the floor.

“It is my hope that states will supplement or add to that floor,” she says. “This is a starting point and not the ceiling.”

Others noted that, put into action, the idea is that states would adjust their entire teacher salary schedules, with $60,000 as a minimum and all other salary “steps” increasing incrementally based on education levels and year of experience. This would be similar to what is underway in Dallas and Houston; all teacher salaries will be increasing under their new minimums.

A small portion of the funds appropriated by Congress—4 percent, according to the text of the bill—would be used to launch a national campaign about the teaching profession, highlighting its importance and value and encouraging high school and college students to pursue paths toward a career in education.

“College youth tell us that they want to teach, but that they also don’t want to be poor,” Calegari says. And in recent years, colleges of education have reported dwindling enrollment in their teacher preparation programs. This bill aims to flip the narrative around teaching as a fast-track to living paycheck to paycheck and signal to young people that the profession has attention, investment and public appreciation, she adds.

“This bill says put your money where your mouth is,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, another supporter of the legislation, in a statement to EdSurge. “We thank Rep. Wilson for her bold legislation addressing the low starting salaries that have plagued the teaching profession for generations, and we are proud to support it.”

Whether this bill will garner bipartisan support—and, more importantly, enough bipartisan support for it to become law—is unknown. Education organizations spanning the political spectrum have signed on in support of the legislation, which has instilled hope among its proponents.

“Resolving the national teacher shortage is something that will take all of us to come together to tackle,” Wilson writes. “America’s classrooms are at stake. The quality and future of our education system is at stake. This is a fight worth fighting and one that we can all agree must be dealt with.”

Regardless of the outcome, the bill itself is significant simply for its existence. It is the first-ever measure to be introduced in Congress that proposes a federal minimum teacher salary, Wilson’s office says. And the sheer fact that a dollar amount has been assigned to the issue of teacher pay represents a tide change.

“This is an amazing starting place,” says Calegari. “To me, it makes sense that this is a congressional issue. It’s the perfect lever to pull.”

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