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In 1991, I graduated at the top of my high school class. I could have majored in a myriad of topics. I chose the teaching profession. First in my nuclear family to graduate high school with a traditional diploma and one of the few in my extended family to pursue a college degree, I forged ahead as a history and secondary education major at SUNY Geneseo, with what my beloved aunt called tunnel vision. My mother and grandmother’s generations were told that nursing, teaching, or the secretary pool were respectable jobs for females. I, however as a member of Generation X, had inherited the fruits of the second wave of feminism. I could be anything. I was surrounded by advertisers telling me that I could bring home the bacon and fry it up in that pan. Virginia Slims cigarettes informed me that women had come a long way, baby. I saw women serving in the military and joining the ranks of firefighters. I watched as Michael Keaton played the title role in the movie Mr. Mom. I appreciated that I had options, but I chose to teach.
However, what I could not fathom in 1991 was that my choice of professions would penalize my entire career, impacting my housing, my retirement, and my children’s education. I am talking about the teacher wage penalty.
On April 24, 2019, The Economic Policy Institute released the report, "The teacher weekly wage penalty hit 21.4 percent in 2018, a record high." The report’s graphics are startling:
According to the report, teachers in states like Arizona, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Colorado have been hardest hit. Therefore, it is no wonder that the #RedforEd wave and the teacher strikes, walkouts, and protests have come from these areas of the United States. In my state of New York, I have faced a 12 percent penalty, often hearing my colleagues reassure themselves at contract negotiation time that we have it better than others. We are in this boat because of the lack of collective bargaining and union membership in many states. The teacher wage penalty is another example of the erosion of labor rights in the United States.
When I accepted my first teaching position in 1995, I made $28,000. If I had not suffered the teacher wage penalty, my current salary would be $105, 280, which is nowhere near my current compensation. According to Money Magazine,
“Nationwide, the average salary for public school teachers was $58,353 in 2016 — though 36 states are below the national average.”
Teachers are not living the middle-class dream, instead in many communities across the United States, teachers' children qualify for free and reduced lunches. The Economic Policy Institute explains the impact of the teacher wage penalty:
“Providing teachers with a decent middle-class living commensurate with other professionals with similar education is not simply a matter of fairness. Effective teachers are the most important school-based determinant of student educational performance.1 To promote children’s success in school, schools must retain credentialed teachers and ensure that teaching remains an attractive career option for college-bound students. Pay is an important component of retention and recruitment.”
Not only has the teacher wage penalty significantly contributed to the reduction of the number of middle-class Americans, but it is also responsible for the nationwide teacher shortage. Who will go into the teaching profession? When young, talented people have so many options, which type of candidates will be attracted to the craft? And, more importantly, what will happen to the profession? In the past, teaching attracted bright minds; now we often see a shortage of talent. Are Generation X teachers promoting the profession, or are we so poisoned by the wage penalty, coupled with the standardized test movement, the “school choice” agenda, and the demonization of the profession as a whole that we have given up? What advice would I give my eighteen-year-old self? Do I encourage my students to pursue a career in education? Would I support my daughters if they happen to want to follow in my footsteps?
But what about the benefits? Teachers tend to get excellent health care benefits. However, those benefits don't pay the pressing expenses like housing, food, and car payments. The Economic Policy Institute explains how teacher benefits do not offset the wage penalty:
"However, this benefits advantage has not been enough to offset the growing wage penalty. The total teacher compensation penalty was 13.1 percent in 2018 (composed of a 21.4 percent wage penalty offset by an 8.4 percent benefits advantage), just slightly less than the record high 13.3 percent compensation penalty in 2017. The bottom line is that the teacher compensation penalty grew by 10.2 percentage points from 1993 to 2018."
The bigger question concerning the teacher wage penalty is, does anyone care? Recently my high school students were discussing Senator Kamala Harris’ proposal that teachers earn a $13,000 annual raise. I overheard a student say, “For what?” The remark broke my heart.
Furthermore, my student's comment is indicative of many taxpayers feelings considering teacher compensation. As long as teachers' salaries are dependent on local tax revenues, teachers will continue to be a pawn in the game of the rich and powerful. The powers that be want to divide the populous and demonize a profession that has suffered wage stagnation and wage decline.
The only hope is that the 2020 presidential candidates are already discussing issues in education. Senator Elizabeth Warren is proposing student loan forgiveness. Senator Bernie Sanders supports reducing or eliminating college costs. Senator Kamala Harris has suggested the $13,000 average teacher salary increase. These proposals are encouraging but are still only potential promises made by politicians who have yet to be elected president.
Until education is valued in the United States, the teacher wage penalty will prevail. The consequences are the erosion of the middle class, a shortage of teacher candidates, and the inability of teachers to unionize in many "Right To Work" states. Teachers are the canary in the coal mine. Every American worker should care about teacher compensation and benefits because the erosion of the American dream begins with the devaluing of educators.