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.

Other areas with shortages include secondary math and science teachers. Differential pay for those qualified to teach those subjects has been proposed, and 60 percent of principals recently surveyed by Peter Harris Research Group Inc. said higher pay would attract more qualified teachers for those subjects. However, in the same survey, roughly the same percentage of principals said they opposed extra pay for those teachers.

The principals favor a different strategy. About 60 percent of those surveyed in the Harris poll, which was released last month by the nonprofit group Recruiting New Teachers Inc., said that better in-school teacher support, such as mentoring programs, would be the most effective way to build up and retain a qualified workforce.

One former teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that while a low salary was part of why she left teaching, it wasn't the primary reason. Instead, the long hours and the lack of respect from some parents led to her decision to quit after 10 years, she said.

Her second -- and last -- teaching job was at a well-known private school in the Washington area, she said. "The parents expected you to be at their beck and call at any hour of the day or night -- after all, that's what they were 'paying good money for.' "

The last straw came, she said, when she called in sick after a miscarriage, and a student's mother called her at home to chastise her for missing work. "She said, 'I don't know what you're doing, but there's no way it's as important as helping my son.' "

The ex-teacher doesn't consider the experience an anomaly. "I have heard that the same thing is true in a lot of other private schools -- the parents assume that they are paying for all of your time," she said.

And yet, by the look of the numbers, they don't want to pay much.

Join Mary Ellen Slayter for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues affecting young workers, at 11 a.m. Oct. 8 at www.washingtonpost.com. E-mail her at slayterme@washpost.com.