Sanders Warns ‘Absurd’ Low Pay of Teachers Fueling Public Education Crisis

By: Jake Johnson; Common Dreams

“We cannot continue to run our public education system on the backs of saints and martyrs,” an elementary school teacher testified to a Senate committee.

A pair of public school teachers warned a key Senate committee on Thursday that low educator pay in the United States is fueling staff shortages across the country and damaging the country’s education system, which is also under sustained attack from right-wing lawmakers who want to slash federal investments in schools and abolish the Department of Education.

“The number one reason teachers leave the profession is the pay,” John Arthur, an elementary school teacher in Holladay, Utah, told members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee during a hearing convened by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

“The number one reason parents don’t want their children to become teachers is the pay,” Arthur added. “So the number one solution to addressing the issues we face must be increasing teacher salaries.”

In written testimony submitted to the Senate panel, Arthur argued that low teacher pay, chronic lack of resources, and extreme stress exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic are at the core of staffing crises that are impacting an overwhelming majority of U.S. school districts, posing a threat to the entire public education system.

“We cannot sustain a healthy, effective public school system when so few parents want their kids to join me and my friends in the classroom,” Arthur’s testimony reads. “We cannot continue to run our public education system on the backs of saints and martyrs. We must raise wages to the level at which we can successfully recruit and retain the talent we need to effectively educate all children, regardless of zip code.”

A teacher at Philadelphia’s third-largest elementary school, Gemayel Keyes, echoed Arthur, noting during Thursday’s hearing that low pay and substantial student loan debt have forced him to work a part-time job and denied him “the American dream of homeownership.”

“We must invest in our teachers but also in our paraprofessionals,” said Keyes. “If we continue to underinvest in the pay and working conditions and don’t match the responsibilities and job expectations, the paraprofessionals shortage will rise, the same way the pipeline of teachers has declined. I must also acknowledge and fully recognize that my job as a teacher would be impossible to do without my paraprofessional staff.”

According to the latest data, the average starting teacher salary in the U.S. is $44,530, and nearly 80% of the nation’s school districts pay a starting salary below $50,000. Teachers have a starting salary below $40,000 per year in around 30% of U.S. school districts.

The national average teacher salary is $69,544, and significant recent pay increases in some states have not been enough to keep up with inflation.

Just 15% of K-12 public school teachers are extremely or very satisfied with their pay, according to a Pew survey released earlier this year, and 68% say their job is “overwhelming.”

“Student absenteeism is at an all-time high and teacher shortages are at crisis levels in most states,” William Kirwan, vice chair of Maryland’s Accountability and Implementation Board, told the Senate panel. “Our students do not perform well on international assessments. Alarm bells should be ringing across the country.”

Sanders, the lead sponsor of legislation that would set the minimum annual salary for U.S. public school teachers at $60,000, said during his opening remarks at Thursday’s hearing that “for decades, public school teachers have been overworked, underpaid, understaffed, and, maybe most importantly, underappreciated.”

The senator added that while there are “many reasons” why U.S. public school teachers are leaving their jobs each year at double the rate of peer nations, “one of the primary reasons is the extremely low pay teachers receive.”

“Incredibly, the average public school teacher in America is making nearly $100 a week less than she or he did 28 years ago after adjusting for inflation,” said Sanders. “Meanwhile, because of lack of resources and tight school budgets, about 80% of public school teachers are forced to spend their own money on classroom supplies without being reimbursed.”

“The situation has become so absurd that four—one, two, three, four—hedge fund managers on Wall Street made more money last year than every kindergarten teacher in America,” Sanders continued. “Public school teachers should not be forced to work two or three jobs to make ends meet. They should not be forced to be on food stamps.”