The Idea of a Teacher Salary Minimum Is Gaining Steam in Congress. Where...

Policy and Government

The Idea of a Teacher Salary Minimum Is Gaining Steam in Congress. Where Has This Worked?

As Congress weighs a $60,000 salary floor for U.S. teachers, we look at local and statewide efforts already in motion.

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Mar 6, 2023

The Idea of a Teacher Salary Minimum Is Gaining Steam in Congress. Where Has This Worked?

Congress is weighing a significant change to the teaching profession — one that proponents hope could help attract strong candidates to the classroom while retaining those who are already in it.

The American Teacher Act, a bill introduced in the House of Representatives in December by Rep. Frederica Wilson, a former teacher, would establish a minimum salary of $60,000 for every public school teacher in the country. Though its success remains a long shot, especially in a now-divided legislature, the proposal gained steam in February when Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont announced he would be introducing complementary legislation called the Pay Teachers Act.

This is the first time Congress has introduced legislation that would create a salary floor for teachers, according to Wilson’s office.

But it’s not the first time that lawmakers and education leaders have identified $60,000 as the magic number. In fact, in a number of regions across the country, first-year teachers are already being hired at that starting salary, thanks to recent pushes for better educator pay.

As Congress considers a federal minimum, we examine two successful efforts — one locally, another statewide — to raise teacher salaries and, in the process, raise the status of the teaching profession.

Maryland Maps a Way Forward

Some years back, before the start of the pandemic, Maryland state legislators were thinking about how to improve their education system, hoping to transform it into one of the best in the world.

So in 2016, the legislature established the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education (better known as the “Kirwan Commission,” a nod to its chairman). The Kirwan Commission was tasked with making policy recommendations and proposing changes to the funding structure that would ultimately help Maryland become a top-performing state for teaching and learning.

Among the many changes the commission recommended — which became law in 2021, under the “Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Act,” and will increase state education funding by $3.8 billion a year — was establishing a statewide salary minimum. This was part of a larger effort the commission determined was necessary to elevate and “rebrand” the teaching profession.

Over the next decade, as Maryland implements elements of the blueprint, every local education agency (LEA) in the state will begin offering a minimum starting salary of $60,000 for teachers. The LEAs are developing their plans, which are due in July 2026, says Rachel Hise, a member of the original Kirwan Commission and now executive director of the board that will implement the blueprint.

So why a salary minimum?

“Money talks,” Hise says.

To transform the education system, whether in Maryland or nationwide, will require more than a pay raise, Hise notes, but money does matter. Hise and her colleagues across the state want the kids who are in school today to view teaching as a desirable profession. To do that, kids need to see that they can have a teaching career that is both satisfying and sustainable.

Emma Pellerin, director of the blueprint’s implementation plan and a former educator, says the new salary floor in Maryland sends a clear message to educators and non-educators alike that teaching is a skilled profession.

“It needs to be taken in combination with so many other things, but having starting salaries is really important to acknowledge that teaching requires expertise … and deep training and [an] understanding of how students learn … in order to get the best outcomes.”

The Kirwan Commission found that the U.S. education system falls behind others — Singapore; Finland; Ontario, Canada; Shanghai, China — in part because of the gap in how it treats, regards and compensates educators. For Maryland to be a competitor with the best systems in the world, the state would have to aim higher, explains Hise.

As for getting to the $60,000 figure, Hise says, “It was part science, part art.”

She and her colleagues looked at the starting pay of comparable professionals — those who, like teachers, are expected to have not only bachelor’s degrees but also master’s degrees and other certifications, such as architects, accountants and registered nurses — as a guide. Data shows that teachers experience a pay penalty just by being in the field: Nationally, teachers earn 76 cents on the dollar compared to similarly qualified professionals. In Maryland, teachers earn about 80 cents on the dollar.

The commission wanted to work toward closing that gap. But it also needed to come up with an amount that was “achievable” for all districts across the state, Hise says. That’s how the commission landed on $60,000 (though Hise concedes that no district in the state currently has a starting salary at that level, and some would likely argue it is not, in fact, “achievable”).

At one point, Maryland considered a tiered minimum salary, varying by regions across the state, Hise notes. But the commission settled on a single number because, although rural areas in Maryland tend to have lower costs of living, they also have a harder time attracting and retaining teachers. By offering teachers competitive starting salaries where their dollar can go further, the commissioners thought, it might sweeten the deal for a teacher considering a job in a more remote school district.

Because the Kirwan Commission was tasked with finding ways to revitalize the profession, its recommendations went beyond salary adjustments. The commission also proposed a career ladder that would provide classroom teachers with leadership opportunities without pulling them out of the classroom, as well as a rebalancing of the educator workday to include more time for educators to improve their instruction and plan lessons.

Plans for the career ladder outline four levels of leadership, including teacher leadership, which will have three pathways: “lead teacher, “distinguished teacher” and “professor distinguished teacher.” The ladder acknowledges that classroom teachers possess different skill sets than administrators, and that those who wish to take on more responsibilities and earn more money should not have to leave the classroom to do so, says Rachel Amstutz, who now serves as the director of operations and policy on the implementation board after 20 years as a public school educator.

Amstutz, who spent the last 14 years as a school principal, says these changes — from the salary minimum to the career ladder — are necessary if Maryland hopes to address what she calls a “crisis” in the teaching profession.

“We’re bleeding our best people,” Amstutz says, “and our kids deserve really great teachers.”

She adds: “We can’t keep people if we don’t work on improving the respect of educators. We can’t keep people if they can’t afford to live in communities where they work.”

Houston, We Have a … Solution?

At Houston Independent School District, which began offering a minimum teacher salary of $61,500 at the start of the current school year, the pay bump was less about competing with the best-performing education systems around the world and more about competing with the dozen or so school districts in the area that all have “quite high” starting salaries, says Jeremy Grant-Skinner, Houston ISD’s chief talent officer.

In the 2021-22 school year, Houston ISD offered a starting salary of around $57,000, which put it among the lowest of 12 peer districts in the region, he says. Now, it’s the highest or second highest. That matters, he says, because geographically, most teachers can pretty easily commute to any one of those 12 districts and therefore leave for a better opportunity when it arises.

The average Houston ISD teacher got an 11 percent raise last fall, which Grant-Skinner believes is the single largest increase teachers in the district have ever received.

There were three reasons, he says, that district leaders felt such a boost was needed.

One was to be more competitive locally. “We are in a region and in a state with tremendous competition for teacher talent,” Grant-Skinner says, and where supply appears not to be keeping pace with demand.

Another is the “real and threatened” teacher shortage the country is facing. “There’s this possibility at any moment — and this has been true since 2020 — that suddenly many, many, many more teachers will leave the profession than ever before,” he says. The pressures on teachers today, with all the new hats they’re expected to wear and the changes they’re expected to adapt to, could very well lead to the en masse departures many have predicted, he adds.

The last reason came from a belief among district leadership that it’s critical to care for the people doing the work in order to see the work improve.

“We know how important great teachers are for student learning, for supporting our school communities, and for Houston in general,” Grant-Skinner says. “Therefore, ensuring our teachers can earn a competitive base salary is important to us.”

Yet it was about more than the base salary, ultimately. The district built in higher step increases for early-career teachers and ensured that the minimum step increase for any teacher would be $500. “We, as a district, have taken on ensuring not only that first-year teachers are paid well but also paying teachers better as they advance through their careers,” he says.

Houston ISD also provides “critical shortage stipends” annually for teachers in high-need, low-supply positions. This year, for example, bilingual and special education teachers are receiving an additional $5,000 over their peers in general education elementary classrooms.

And about 5 percent of teachers across the district are serving in part-time “teacher leader” roles — including positions as mentors, data specialists and curriculum specialists —for which they receive monetary bonuses.

Like leaders in Maryland, Grant-Skinner feels the troubles in the teaching profession run deeper than dollars and cents.

“Salary alone is not the thing that is going to solve teacher recruitment challenges in Houston,” he says. “We need to create pathways for teachers to earn more, advance in their careers and expand their impact without having to leave the classroom or leave the school or leave public education.”

Grant-Skinner adds: “We can’t get caught up on pay alone and lose sight of the whole package needed to get and keep great teachers.”

Still, district leaders must have thought the money would make a difference, or they wouldn’t have decided to swallow the $150 million increase — or about 10 percent of annual revenue — in recurring costs to the district’s balance sheet under this new salary plan.

Early signs suggest their big bet is paying off. After the board approved the new salary schedule last summer, Houston ISD saw fewer teacher departures than in any of the prior five years. And the district has registered a “significant increase” in the number of applications for teaching positions this year.

Perhaps news has spread that in fall 2024, the starting salary for teachers at Houston ISD will be $64,000.

Taking It to the National Level

Houston ISD has seen this salary minimum realized. Maryland is well on its way. So what do those involved in the implementation think of taking this idea to the national level?

They’re on board.

“If it’s good for Maryland, I think it’s probably great for the nation,” says Hise, executive director of the board implementing the blueprint. “But I would also caution that that alone isn’t necessarily going to have the full impact we need for our kids and our education system.”

Pellerin agrees that scaling Maryland’s plan nationally would likely benefit teachers and students across the country, starting by attracting and retaining teachers.

“It needs to be done in concert with other things,” she says, “but I would support [a federal minimum].”

Amstutz, the former principal, says it raises a lot of questions for her and makes her head spin. Where is all that money going to come from? And is $60,000 the right number in the most — or least — expensive places to live in the U.S.?

“It makes my math mind wonder,” Amstutz admits. “But it’s great for kids, it’s great for teachers, and it goes a long way in starting to re-professionalize the profession and to try to recruit teachers, which is a national crisis. So I think that anything that can be done to help support that goes a long way to fixing the problem.”

As for Grant-Skinner in Houston, he feels that the U.S. has a long way to go toward treating teachers with the kind of respect they deserve.

“We know that teacher salaries lag behind salaries of comparably educated and certified professionals in other fields, and therefore there is still work to do,” he says. “That’s not work in one district — that’s work for the whole country. It’s valuable to consider raising the floor.”

And if this country values the work that teachers are doing every day with kids, he adds, then it’s possible that no matter where a teacher lives, there is a certain amount of money — a minimum — that they ought to be paid just for doing it. And that amount of money might just be $60,000.

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