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Teachers' Low Pay Is a Lesson in Disparity

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2004; Page K01

Kathy Rushlow said she had high hopes when she began taking classes last fall to earn her Virginia teaching license, but now she's having doubts -- $20,000 worth of them.

That's the cut in annual pay that Rushlow, a 46-year-old broadcast journalist, said she would have to take to become a teacher.

The pay gap between teachers and other comparably skilled workers has grown in the past 10 years, making it ever more difficult to recruit and retain qualified teachers, according to a report released last month by the Economic Policy Institute.

The low starting salaries can be particularly discouraging for those who become interested in teaching mid-career and have families to support, "unless the person has perhaps taken an early retirement or has a spouse with a large income," said Rushlow, a widow with two school-aged children.

EPI, a nonpartisan think tank in the District, found that teachers earned $116 less per week in 2002 than what it termed comparably skilled workers in other fields, such as accountants, nurses and computer programmers. That translates to more than $6,000 a year.

The study also found that teachers' wages have fallen behind those of other college graduates since 1996, with teachers' inflation-adjusted weekly wages rising just 0.8 percent, compared with 12 percent for other college graduates.

This discrepancy can be particularly acute in parts of the country with a high cost of living. Nationwide, teachers earn median salaries of $39,810 to $44,340. The median sales price for an existing home, a common measure for cost of living, averaged $191,300 nationwide in July, according to the National Association of Realtors. Teachers in the Washington region earn a median salary of $44,150; the median price of a home in the region is $352,400.

These daunting figures don't dissuade everyone. Stacey H. Smith, an education student at Towson University, said a supportive environment matters more than money. Smith is in her last semester of student teaching, at Pasadena Elementary in Anne Arundel County, and she credits mentoring efforts by the staff there with sustaining her interest.

"You're not in it for the money," said Smith, 22, of Montgomery Village. "I've never even imagined doing anything else as a career."

Preschool, kindergarten, elementary school, middle school and high school teachers held about 3.8 million jobs in 2002, the most recent figures available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 10 percent of teachers work in private schools, with the majority working for locally governed school districts. These counts do not include special-education teachers, a specialty in which many school districts report acute shortages.

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