- Thanks to educator activism, many state legislatures have prioritized raising school staff salaries.
- While some lawmakers have increased teacher pay to help address shortages, others are using the issue to disguise their continued attacks on public education and unions.
The past two years have been, on the whole, encouraging for teacher and other school staff salaries. Fueled by concerns over staff shortages increasing, more states have made raising educator pay a legislative priority. Lack of professional pay is a top driver in educators' decision to stay or leave the profession.
This attention would not have been possible without the tireless advocacy of educators and their unions. They have led campaigns that have notched up major—sometimes historic—legislative wins in 2022 that will produce large salary increases over the next couple of years.
The most recent NEA Teacher Salary Benchmark Report noted that while pay had stagnated in 2021, better news lay ahead. Indeed, the first six months of 2023 saw more states adding educator pay to their legislative agenda.
So, good news all around? Not exactly. Not all salary legislation is created equal. There are right and wrong ways to address teacher pay and staff shortages. In fact, some lawmakers who profess to address low salaries are pushing an agenda that is detrimental to the teaching profession and public schools in general. They’re using the public demand to support our teachers and school staff merely as a trojan horse.
“It has become abundantly clear that decisions regarding educator pay and other education policies,” the authors of the Salary Benchmark Report wrote, “have reached a dichotomy where states are either taking bold action to address the educator shortage and implement policies that support our system of public education, or they are doubling down on inherently flawed, tired, and punitive measures that serve the narrow interests of an extreme few.”
How It Should Be Done
“Educators who dedicate their lives to students shouldn’t be struggling to support their own families,” NEA President Becky Pringle said in April. “A career in education must not be a lifetime sentence of financial worry. Who will choose to teach under those circumstances? There is a perfect storm brewing in public schools.”
Teachers make $3,644 less on average than they did 10 years ago when adjusted for inflation; and 40 percent of school districts, employing a half million teachers, still offer a starting salary below $40,000. Low pay—along with poor working conditions—has fueled widespread staff shortages across the nation and contributed to an overall lack of interest in the teaching profession.
Fortunately, many states get it, and have avoided gimmicks and alternate agendas to take serious steps to recruit and retain educators.
New Mexico is among them. In February 2022, the legislature unanimously passed a bill that gave all school employees 7 percent raises and boosted minimum salaries for public school teachers. 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, by 2022-23, teacher salaries in the state increased on average by 17 percent.
That same year, advocacy by the Mississippi Association of Educators (MAE) helped secure the passage of a bill providing the largest pay increase the state’s teachers and teaching assistants have ever seen. Teachers in the state, long among the lowest paid in the nation, received an average increase of more than $5,000 in the 2022 – 2023 school year, which is about a 10 percent pay hike on average. The bill also includes a $2,000 pay increase for teacher assistants and annual step increases for teachers, with larger bumps at five-year intervals.
Other states, including California, Washington and more recently Colorado, Maryland, and Minnesota, have significantly boosted education funding, paving the way for local unions in these states to negotiate substantial pay increases for school staff.
An Unacceptable Trade-Off
In March 2023, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed into law the LEARNS Act, which increased beginning teacher salaries from $36,000 to $50,000.
But what else was in the sweeping 145-page law? A hint might have been that the students who stood behind Sanders during the bill signing ceremony were from Calvary Academy, a private school in Little Rock.
Private schools across the state look to benefit from the LEARNS Act. The law establishes a voucher program (so-called “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts”), which will allow families to use public taxpayer dollars to cover the costs of private school tuition, homeschooling expenses, and other educational expenses.
And what about that pay raise Sanders touted as evidence of her support of teachers? Yes, starting salaries will improve, but the law also erases state-guaranteed minimum salary steps. Now districts who want to reward experience and graduate degrees will have to do that on their own dime. The law also removes Arkansas’ fair teacher dismissal act which provides legal protections and mandatory processes for removal.
If that wasn’t enough, one month later, Sanders signed a separate bill that removed the option to use payroll deductions to pay union or professional organization dues. Without payroll deduction, Arkansas educators’ only option now is to pay on their own. This prohibitive measure is only designed to weaken the voices of educators—including their ability to advocate for public school funding and higher salaries in the future.
The Arkansas Education Association (AEA) opposed the LEARNS Act, saying it “increased teachers’ salaries in exchange for implementing unpopular and destructive voucher schemes.”
AEA leaders urged lawmakers to de-couple the salary increases from the anti-public school provisions that dominated the legislation, but to no avail.
Lawmakers' focus should be on the 90 percent of Arkansas children who attend public schools, said then-AEA President Carol B. Fleming. Instead, the LEARNS Act the LEARNS Act “diverts money from [public school students] to give to the 10 percent who attend private schools," Fleming added. "By taking funding away for public schools, vouchers will harm rural communities, where public schools are popular and remain the only option for most students.”
Making Shortages Worse
Arkansas wasn't alone in using public demand for higher educator salaries to advance an anti-public education agenda agenda. In May, Florida, under Gov. Ron DeSantis, passed a law that also increased funding for teacher salaries without truly helping experienced teachers. The state remains near the bottom when it comes to the overall average teacher salary, because DeSantis and the Florida legislature did not provide for increases beyond the starting salary.
On the same day he signed the salary bill into law, DeSantis also signed a series of anti-union measures, including prohibiting the payroll deduction of union dues and requiring union membership density to be at least 60 percent or risk decertification.
Similar games have been played in Tennessee, where lawmakers in May approved a measure that provided an incremental pay increase for teachers while banning payroll deduction.
“Sliding a payroll dues deduction ban in a bill to raise the minimum pay was a cynical attack on Tennessee teachers,” Tennessee Education Association President Tanya Coats said.
Political attacks have become an exhausting and demeaning job hazard for educators in these states, especially Florida. And faced with stagnant salaries, why would they stay in the profession? Too often, they don't. Florida is facing a dire staffing crisis.
When you vilify teachers and staff, shortages are only going to get worse, Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar said.
"We have not seen legislation to address the staff and teacher shortage or very little that may help, but what we have seen is a lot of legislation that will arguably make it worse.”