- The teacher pay penalty is the gap between the weekly wages of teachers and college graduates working in other professions.
- A new report by the Economic Policy Institute finds that gap has more than quadrupled since 1996.
- Over the past year, educator activism in state legislatures and at the bargaining table has helped bring significant pay increases to teachers and other school staff.
Despite the progress many states have made in the past two years to address teacher pay (and the educator shortage), a new analysis serves as a stark reminder about how far we still must go for the profession to be at least marginally competitive with other professions. Prospective teachers do not expect to become wealthy, but the choice to enter the classroom is costing them more and more every year—and that's bad news for teacher recruitment and retention.
According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the teacher "pay penalty"—the gap between the weekly wages of teachers and college graduates working in other professions—grew to a record 26.4% in 2022, an increase from 23.5% in 2021.
In 1996, the pay gap was only 6.1%.
This means that, on average, teachers earned 73.6 cents for every dollar that other professionals made in 2022—significantly less than the 93.9 cents on the dollar they made in 1996.
Historically, women educators enjoyed a wage premium. However, pay parity was lost in the mid 1990s – likely as other professional opportunities emerged – and the pay penalty for women teachers has widened ever since, reaching 21.3% in 2022. For men, the pay gap widens significantly to 36.6%, which the EPI report notes, goes a long way in explaining why so few men choose teaching as a profession.
“Over the past two decades, teacher pay has fallen further and further behind similarly qualified professionals,” said report author Sylvia Allegretto, a senior economist at the Center for Economic Policy and Research and research associate at EPI. “These worsening trends have become a significant and growing challenge for the teaching profession. Providing teachers with compensation commensurate with that of other similarly educated professionals is necessary to retain and attract qualified workers into the profession.”
Inflation Outpacing Pay Increases
EPI has been tracking trends in teacher pay for almost two decades and identified the teacher pay penalty as one of the factors that has undermined the profession. Such a disparity in salary makes teaching a less attractive career choice to college students, exacerbating staff shortages and harming student outcomes. For current educators, the pay gap becomes even more intolerable when other deficiencies—lack of respect, lack of safety, lack of support—also plague the profession.
“A career in education must not be a lifetime sentence of financial worry," National Education Association President Becky Pringle said. “Who will choose to teach under those circumstances? There is a perfect storm brewing in public schools.”
A stubbornly high inflation rate in 2022—inflation in 2021 and 2022 was at its highest levels since the early 1980s–-took its toll on all workers' purchasing power, but educators, again, felt a disproportionate impact. The average weekly wage for teachers in 2022, adjusted for inflation, plummeted from $1,457 in 2021 to $1,329 in 2022. The decline among other college graduates amounted to only $4, from $2,171 to $2,167.
High inflation neutralizes any benefits from modest salary increases because prices are growing faster than paychecks. To boost standards of living, increases in pay need to exceed the rate of inflation. Accustomed to at best marginal salary increases, educators find that making ends meet continues to be a challenge and are often forced to take on an extra job.
Inflation's impact was also reflected in NEA's latest educator salary and pay data, released in April. Even though the national average public school teacher salary in 2021-22 increased 2 percent from the previous year to $66,745 (and is projected to grow a further 2.6 percent in 2022-23) when adjusted for inflation, teachers are making $3,644 less than they did a decade ago. For education support professionals, when adjusted for inflation, the story is the same. ESP salaries in 2013 dollars fell from $31,905 to $28,734.
Support for Raising Pay
The pay penalty exceeded 20% in 31 states. Where is it the widest? According to the EPI report, Colorado has the largest gap—37.4%—followed by Arizona and Virginia. At 7.6%, the smallest penalty for teachers is in New Jersey.
An NEA analysis found that closing the teacher pay penalty would require about a $10,000 increase in starting teacher pay and approximately a $15,000 increase in the average teacher salary.
Thanks to educator activism—in the legislature and at the bargaining table—some states may soon see major progress on this front. In 2022, New Mexico approved a dramatic increase to educator salaries. Base pay increased to at least $50,000 for new, "level-one" teachers; to at least $60,000 for level-two teachers; and at least $70,000 for the most experienced, level-three teachers. Overall, according to the New Mexico Public Education Department, in 2022-23, teacher salaries in the state increased on average by 17 percent.
The largest pay raise teachers and teacher assistants in Mississippi have ever seen also went into effect last year. It provided teachers with an average salary increase of about $5,100—a jump of more than 10 percent. The bill also included a $2,000 increase for teacher assistants.
Paying educators more is an immensely popular idea right now. At the same time, many politicians are offering up proposals that masquerade as salary bills to conceal a more hostile agenda.
In 2023, Arkansas’s new law increasing starting salaries did so while eliminating state-guaranteed minimum salary steps and setting aside more money for private school vouchers. Following similar legislation in Florida, lawmakers there also passed a series of anti-union measures.
Using the pay issue as a cynical ploy to further undermine public education, penalize veteran teachers and silence their voices only further erodes the stature of the profession and deepens staff shortages.
We cannot recruit and retain excellent educators on the cheap, says Sylvia Allegretto.
“One of our nation’s highest ideals is the promise to educate every child without regard to means," she writes in the EPI report. "In many respects, we have always fallen short on that promise. There are many issues to be addressed around public education and its funding. But one thing is for sure. A world class public educational system cannot be accomplished without the best and the brightest heading our classrooms.”