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Teachers are underpaid. Is that changing?

Stephanie Hughes Mar 3, 2023
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At least two dozen states, plus Congress, have proposed or enacted laws to boost teacher pay in recent years. Olivier Touron/AFP via Getty Images

Teachers are underpaid. Is that changing?

Stephanie Hughes Mar 3, 2023
Heard on:
At least two dozen states, plus Congress, have proposed or enacted laws to boost teacher pay in recent years. Olivier Touron/AFP via Getty Images
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Lawmakers at the federal and state levels — across both parties — have been proposing and passing laws that increase teacher pay. President Joe Biden called for paying teachers more in his State of the Union speech a few weeks back, as did Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders in her Republican response.

But why have teachers’ salaries been historically so low in the first place?

Public school teachers have been underpaid since public education started in the United States in the late 1800s. That’s when women began to be recruited for these jobs, said economist Sylvia Allegretto with the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

“Women, we couldn’t even get college degrees. We weren’t in college, and they knew that they could save money by hiring women,” she said.

In addition, Allegretto pointed out that women had fewer work options than men. That original wage gap has persisted for all teachers.

Allegretto found that teachers are paid, on average, 23.5% less than other educated workers who choose other professions. “Even ones who want to become teachers often say they’re not going to be because they know they’re going to fall further and further behind,” she said.

Now, as schools struggle to hire, at least two dozen states — and Congress — have either proposed or enacted laws to increase teacher pay in the past couple of years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Increases vary, per Molly Gold, a senior policy specialist there.

“I mean, it differs tremendously by state. Wide range,” she said. “I would say that there’s definitely movement towards the upper end of the scale.”

But she said it’s also important for states to invest in teacher training. Gold, who used to be a high school English teacher herself, said that a lot of students came to her with personal issues, sometimes related to trauma.

“You know, I felt honored to be someone that they trusted enough to talk to about that,” she said. “But did I necessarily have training on how to really counsel these kids coming to me with these things? No. And it’s hard to take that on as well.” 

This kind of experience proves that the teaching profession isn’t just about subject matter expertise — and it’s one of the reasons economist Sylvia Allegretto says these jobs should be highly compensated.

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