The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Teacher ‘pay penalty’ hits new high

The trend of educators making less money than other college graduates is getting worse

(Economic Policy Institute) (The Washington Post /Economic Policy Institute)

(Note: Replacing map with updated version and adding new chart)

Amid what is being called crisis-level teacher shortages in public school districts across the country, a new report offers a partial explanation: Average weekly wages of teachers increased just $29 — repeat, $29 — from 1996 to 2021, compared with a $445 increase in weekly wages of other college graduates. (The figures were adjusted only for inflation.)

It’s what’s called the “teacher wage penalty,” which the nonprofit and nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has been tracking for years. According to the EPI report, the penalty grew to a record high in 2021: to 23.5 percent, meaning that teachers earn that much less than other college graduates.

In 1996, the teacher wage penalty was 6.1 percent. Average weekly wages for teachers went from $1,319 in 1996 to $1,348 in 2021; for other college graduates, average weekly pay rose from $1,564 to $2,009 over the same period (both in 2021 dollars).

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“Over the last 18 years, EPI has closely tracked trends in teacher pay,” the report says. “Over these nearly two decades, a picture of increasingly alarming trends has emerged. Simply put, teachers are paid less (in weekly wages and total compensation) than their nonteacher college-educated counterparts, and the situation has worsened considerably over time.”

School district leaders say a combination of factors have led to today’s debilitating shortages: complaints about low pay; inadequate resources; school shootings; and now, the culture wars. Teachers have become targets for conservative activists and Republican policymakers who are restricting what teachers can say about U.S. history, race, gender and other subjects.

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Teacher morale in poll after poll is at its lowest in decades, and many who quit cite a lack of respect for their work and profession — manifested in, among things, low wages. They point to Arizona, where the legislature is now allowing people without college degrees to teach, and Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has called on veterans without degrees to become teachers.

For anyone who thinks teachers’ benefits make up for the wage deficit, the numbers don’t work out that way, EPI says. The teacher total compensation penalty was 14.2 percent in 2021 (a 23.5 percent wage penalty offset by a 9.3 percent benefits advantage).

“The bottom line is that the teacher total compensation penalty grew by 11.5 percentage points from 1993 to 2021,” according to the report, written by Sylvia A. Allegretto, a research associate with EPI who worked for 15 years at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California at Berkeley, where she co-founded the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics.

“Surveys report that some college students would like to go into teaching but say the pay is too low and falling behind more and more compared to that of other professions they could choose,” Allegretto said in an email. “So, many forgo teaching. Money matters.

“This profession needs to be elevated to the status it deserves and importance it holds,” she said.

Allegretto did not compare teacher salaries from state to state but, instead, compared wages between teachers and other college graduates within each state. The teacher wage penalty varied; for example, Rhode Island, Wyoming, and New Jersey have the smallest pay penalties — at 3.4 percent, 4 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively. States with the largest: Colorado, 35.9 percent; Oklahoma, 32.8 percent; Virginia, 32.7 percent. Maryland’s was 20.3 percent; and D.C.'s was 19 percent. (You can see a map above and a chart below with percentages from all states. The full EPI report is below as well.)

In the reverse of conventional wage patterns in America, it is male teachers who have seen larger pay penalties than women. “Through the mid-1990s, women in the teaching profession had a relative wage ‘premium’ (or were close to parity) relative to comparable women working in other professions,” the report says. In 1960, women teachers had a 14.7 percent wage premium but by 2021, they had a 17.1 percent wage penalty. Male teachers, on the other hand, already faced wage penalties in the 1960s, and it grew to 35.2 percent by 2021, it says.

Here’s the full report: