Educator pay is a critical factor in decision-making about whether to join and stay in the profession.
This is understandable given the large and growing wage gap between teachers and similar professionals discussed previously, plus the low overall wages offered to educators.
In 2020–2021, the average starting salary for teachers was $41,770 and nearly half (47 percent) of districts had a starting salary of less than $40,000.
In many districts, pay does not increase dramatically with experience, with the pay scale topping out at less than $60,000 in nearly 20 percent of districts, even though reaching this point typically requires a Ph.D. or substantial credit hours beyond a master’s degree and 25 to 30 years of experience.
The pay gap between teachers and similar professions averaged 23.5 percent in 2021 and was more than 30 percent in five states: Colorado, Oklahoma, Virginia, Arizona, and Alabama.
Unsurprisingly, ESP pay is well below what teachers earn. In 2020–2021, more than 40 percent of Pre-K–12 ESPs working full-time (at least 30 hours per week) earned less than $25,000 a year.
In all but one state, the average ESP salary was at least $10,000 below a basic living wage for a family of one adult and one child in the state’s most affordable metro area.
Pay and benefits solutions that can help address the educator shortage crisis include the following:
Solutions to Make Pay and Benefits Competitive
Increase Base Pay and Benefits
The educator recruitment and retention crisis can be, in part, blamed on the fact that many educators can make more money in less-stressful jobs outside of education. Increasing base pay has been connected to attracting more and higher-quality teaching candidates, and districts that offer higher pay have had lower levels of teacher attrition, both in terms of moving to another district and leaving the profession altogether.
Most important, states and districts with higher educator wages have had higher levels of student achievement and smaller achievement gaps due to higher achievement among Black and Hispanic students.
While time-limited bonuses may have filled classrooms in the short term, they have not led to the long-term improvements in teacher attrition that are so desperately needed; research has shown that attrition returns to normal levels after bonuses end.
To recruit and retain educators, districts should implement strong, short salary schedules that offer competitive starting salaries, rewards for professional development, and competitive mid- and late-career earnings.
Raise Substitute Pay and Include Full-Time Work and Benefits
Some districts have collectively bargained with their unions to have full-time substitutes assigned to every building.
Other districts have also significantly raised substitute pay and provided benefits to attract and keep people in these positions. For example, Iowa City hired full-time substitutes for each building and improved pay and benefits, and the San Diego Education Association signed a collective bargaining agreement to maintain a cadre of high-quality substitute teachers.
These changes are promising given research that has demonstrated the importance of pay, work schedule, and support from teachers and administrators to substitute teachers’ decisions about whether to accept positions.
Bargain and Advocate for Comprehensive Health Care Benefits
Providing comprehensive, affordable, high-quality health care benefits is an important tool to improving retention and recruitment and in addressing the educator shortage crisis.
When bargaining and advocating for health care benefits, it is essential to ensure comprehensive coverage that includes medical and mental health services, emergency care, preventative/wellness care, prescription medications, mail delivery for prescription drugs, and telehealth services. In addition, such comprehensive coverage must be affordable and not cost prohibitive as well as provide access to a robust provider network.
It is particularly important to note that while educator pay lags behind similar professionals, health care costs continue to increase. The national average premium for family coverage increased 22 percent between 2016 and 2021 and 47 percent from 2011 to 2021. The amount paid by employees is increasing in line with this explosion in cost; as of 2021, the average dollar contribution for family coverage had increased 13 percent since 2016 and 45 percent since 2011.
Educators have not been immune to these cost increases. A 2018 analysis found that teachers pay significantly more for health insurance premiums than other state and local government employees. From 2007 to 2017, the amount teachers paid for premiums increased by nearly $1,500 per year after adjusting for inflation, with the share of the overall premium cost paid by teachers increasing from 35 percent to 38 percent.
Understanding how the plan structure impacts health care costs and access to a robust provider network is vital in ensuring that educators are provided with comprehensive health care benefits that are not cost prohibitive. As such, it is imperative to understand the differences in health plan benefit structures and coverage under plans as well as other key factors impacting cost and provider networks, such as whether a plan is fully insured or self-insured; covers in-network and out-of-network providers; requires out-of-pocket expenses; includes premiums; has copayments and coinsurance; and requires deductibles.
Provide Paid Family Leave and Continue Emergency Sick Leave for COVID-19-Related Absences
Providing paid leave is particularly important to recruiting and retaining substitutes, bus drivers, and other personnel who do not typically receive coverage.
With non-education employers stepping up their wages and benefits to attract and retain employees, it is imperative that school districts follow suit. States and districts should also ensure that all staff have ongoing access to emergency sick leave for COVID-19-related absences.
Providing such leave will reduce the spread of COVID-19 and thus lower the overall number of absences, thereby reducing the demand for substitute teachers and the need for staff to cover empty classrooms.
Reverse the Trend of Eroding Pension Benefits in New Tiers
When teachers and other public-sector workers have had an unbiased choice between a defined benefit pension and a savings account-based plan, they overwhelmingly chose a real pension.
We also know that once an educator has vested in a pension plan, retention rates increase dramatically.
However, eroding plan provisions in new tiers can weaken the recruitment and retention capabilities of pensions.
It is time to reverse the trend and strengthen plan provisions. Additionally, defined benefit pension plans must be offered to those educators who are currently only offered defined contribution plans.
Repeal GPO and WEP
Currently, the Government Pension Offset (GPO) and the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) deprive more than 2.5 million educators and other public employees of Social Security benefits they have earned.
GPO reduces the Social Security spousal or survivor benefits of people who get a government pension (federal, state, or local) but did not pay Social Security taxes themselves. Two-thirds of the government pension is deducted from the Social Security benefit—for example, for someone receiving a $600 monthly government pension, the Social Security benefit is reduced by $400. Some people lose their entire Social Security benefit.
WEP reduces the Social Security retirement, disability, spousal, or survivor benefits of people who work in jobs in which they pay Social Security taxes and jobs in which they do NOT pay Social Security taxes—for example, educators compelled to take part-time or summer jobs to make ends meet.
These offsets discourage people from becoming educators, especially those in mid-career who stand to lose Social Security benefits they have already earned. That, in turn, can adversely affect the quality of the education our students receive and contribute to the educator shortage facing our nation.
Rescind the Regulation Excluding Teachers from FLSA Protections
Currently, the only professions that are categorically excluded from the protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) are lawyers, doctors, and teachers.
This means that teachers do not qualify for overtime protections, even if they are paid hourly or earn less than the current weekly salary threshold of $684 per week. While most lawyers and doctors earn well above this limit, many teachers do not.
The Economic Policy Institute estimated that the regulatory change to end this exclusion would support higher pay for 1.5 million teachers. This amounts to
- 23.8 percent of the teacher workforce,
- teachers under the age of 25 (67.3 percent),
- preschool and kindergarten teachers (33.1 percent),
- non-unionized teachers (32.4 percent), and
- teachers of color (28.0 percent).
By making this regulatory change to put a salary floor under the teaching profession, the federal government would push school districts to either raise teachers’ base pay to maintain FLSA exempt status or provide overtime pay or, for public-sector employees, provide compensatory time off for more than 40 hours worked per week.
Increase Union Representation
According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, workers who were represented by a union earned 10 percent higher wages than an employee with similar education, occupation, and experience in a non-unionized workplace in the same industry.
This finding holds true in education, with both teachers and ESPs covered by collective bargaining laws earning more than those who are not covered. Workplaces with union representation have been shown to enjoy stronger health and safety provisions, better health insurance, and more paid leave provisions. All of these are critical components in recruiting and retaining high-quality educators.
Unionization has also been linked to higher civic engagement and more economically just public policy.
Provide Housing and Child Care Supports
Given relatively low wages and ever-increasing housing prices, many educators cannot afford to live in the communities in which they teach and work.
Both housing and child care costs often prove prohibitive to remaining in the education profession or even considering a career in education.
One policy solution is for communities to provide housing incentives that attract educators to their district, including relocation reimbursement, reduced rent, down payment assistance, reduced mortgage rates, and tax incentives for living in the community in which they work. Survey data have shown that for nearly a quarter of teachers who have left the profession, housing incentives would be extremely or very important in deciding whether or not to return.
In addition, some districts have provided child care for young children as an option to employees. Bringing child care centers into middle and/or high schools provides educators who have young children more flexibility and also offers an opportunity for middle and high school students to engage and work with young children.
Examples of Solutions in Action
- New Mexico passed legislation to raise all teacher salaries by $10,000 and educational support staff will get a 7 percent salary increase. The minimum starting salary increased from $36,000 to $40,000.
- Mississippi passed the largest teacher salary increase in its history. The average annual teacher raise is $5,140, and this increase raises the average starting salary to $41,500, which is a tremendous win. The average ESP increase is $2,000.
- Milwaukee raised substitute wages for both paras and teachers and secured longevity bonuses for all job classifications.
- Maryland passed legislation to boost educator starting salaries to $60,000 by FY26. And the average teacher salary rose by 4.2 percent between 2018–19 and 2019–20.
- Maine passed HP 314 in 2019, an act to increase the statewide minimum salary for teachers to $40,000. The new minimum, which is to be phased-in over three years, required a starting salary of at least $35,000 in 2020–21, increasing to $37,500 in 2021–22. The full $40,000 minimum kicks in for the 2022–23 school year.
- In Colorado, recent increases in teacher salaries have been fueled by increased educator activism, including large school walkouts along with local bargaining strikes in places like Denver, Pueblo, and South Park. Aurora negotiated a 5.5 percent increase across the board, and depending on experience and education level, others will get more. Jefferson County ESPs bargained a $3 per hour raise, bringing starting salary up to $18 an hour by 2023.
- Through collective bargaining, Minneapolis education support professionals (ESPs) won pay increases starting at $2 per hour and one-time payments of $6,000 over two years.
Substitutes and Sub Pay
- Montgomery County, Maryland, increased the number of permanent substitutes so that schools have qualified individuals daily to fill gaps where needed.
- Iowa hired full-time substitutes for each building; they receive higher pay and health benefits.
- San Diego Education Association signed a collective bargaining agreement to maintain a cadre of high-quality substitute teachers.
- Des Moines Public Schools’ increased substitute pay from $150 to $165 a day.
Paid Family Leave and COVID-19 Emergency Leave
- 11 states have enacted or expanded paid family leave—California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington.
- Framingham Teachers Association in Massachusetts negotiated so that in families where both parents are district employees, both will receive 12 weeks of parental leave rather than having to decide between one person receiving 12 weeks or having to split the leave. https://framingham.massteacher.org/
- Montgomery County, Maryland, negotiated 80 hours of emergency COVID-19 leave for vaccinated unit members and 80 hours of leave to care for a family member.
- The Eldorado Education Association and local District 4 School Board in Illinois agreed to provide teachers with additional paid time off to recover if they contract COVID-19.