WASHINGTON, Feb. 13 – Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, on Monday hosted a town hall at the U.S. Capitol entitled “Respecting our Teachers: A Town Hall on the Teacher Pay Crisis in America.” He was joined by Becky Pringle, President of the National Education Association (NEA), and Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), as well as other educators and teachers.
Sanders’ remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below and can be watched here.
Good evening. As the new Chairman of the Senate HELP Committee, let me thank all of you who are here at the Capitol Visitor’s Center tonight and the many tens of thousands who are watching all over this country as we discuss one of the most important issues facing our nation: The teacher pay crisis in America.
I am delighted to be joined onstage with Becky Pringle, the president of the nation’s largest labor union in America – the National Education Association – representing 3 million educators and their allies throughout our country. Becky has over 30 years of classroom experience as a middle school teacher from Philadelphia.
I am also delighted to be here with Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who represents 1.7 million members in over 3,000 local affiliates all over America.
And let me also thank my good friend Senator Ed Markey from Massachusetts – a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee for also joining us here today as well.
In a moment, we will hear directly from not only Becky, Randi and Ed, but also from 4 public school teachers from across the country who will share their stories about what’s going on with education today and what teaching has been like during the pandemic.
Let me begin by saying to our nation’s teachers: Thank you. Thank you for the extraordinarily important work that you are doing every day to improve the lives of our kids. You are true heroes and heroines of our country. And it is about time that you are treated with the respect and the dignity that you deserve.
It’s also about time that we got our national priorities right. If we understand that the children of our country are our future then we understand that we should not have the highest childhood poverty of almost any major nation on earth.
If we understand that we live in a competitive global economy and that we need the best educated workforce in the world, we must understand that it is absurd that there are school districts throughout the country where there are major shortages of teachers.
And if we understand the enormously important work that teachers do, that means, in my view, among many other things, that we should be paying public school teachers a minimum of at least $60,000 a year – and I will soon be introducing legislation to do just that.
As all of you here today know, teachers today are experiencing high levels of stress and burnout all of which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. In fact, new data from the EdWeek Research Center shows that almost 20% of teachers, principals, and district leaders have indicated that they have contracted long COVID and are still suffering from that disease.
The result of all of this: Some 300,000 public school educators and staff left their jobs during the pandemic and we now have a shortage of some 200,000 public school teachers throughout the country.
In America today, over half of our public schools are under-staffed. And to make matters even worse, these teacher shortages disproportionately impact schools that primarily serve students of color and students in low-income neighborhoods.
In America today, 44% of public school teachers quit the profession within 5 years. Why is that? Why are so many public school teachers leaving the profession they love? Well, there are many reasons. But one of the primary reasons is the pathetically low pay teachers receive. In America today, the starting pay for teachers in almost 40% of our school districts is less than $40,000 a year.
Further, 43% of all teachers in America make less than $60,000 a year. The situation has become so absurd that the top 15 hedge fund managers on Wall Street make more money in a single year than every kindergarten teacher in America – over 120,000 teachers. The sad reality is that teacher pay in America has been stagnant for nearly 50 years. Unfortunately and unacceptably, the average weekly wage of a public school teacher has gone up by just $29 over the past 30 years – after adjusting for inflation. Wages for public school teachers are so low that in 36 states throughout America, the average public school teacher with a family of four qualifies for food stamps, public housing and other government benefits. That is simply disgraceful.
In America today, hundreds of thousands of public school teachers are forced to work two or three jobs during the school year. Maybe they are driving an Uber. Maybe they are waiting tables. Maybe they are parking cars.
In the richest country in the history of the world, we have got to do better than that. It is time to end the international embarrassment of America ranking 29th out of 30 countries in the pay middle school teachers receive.
If we are going to have the best public school system in the world, we have got to radically change our attitude toward education and make sure that every teacher in America receives the compensation that she or he deserves for the enormously important and difficult work that they do.
And let’s be clear. As bad as public school teachers are paid, childcare workers are paid even less. What psychologists tell us is that ages 0-4 are the most important years of human development. In America today, the average childcare worker makes about $13.30 an hour – less than a parking lot attendant or a doggy day care worker.
In my view, there is something fundamentally wrong in America when we pay more to take care of our pets than to take care of our young children.
Let me be frank and tell you what I would like to see. I want the day to come, sooner than later, when we are going to attract the best and brightest young people in our country into teaching. I want those young people to be proud of the profession that they have chosen. I want them to teach in under-served communities and I want them to help produce the best educated kids in the world.
In order to accomplish those goals we have got to pay teachers in America what they deserve. That is why I will soon be introducing the Pay Teachers Act. This bill will triple Title I funding. It will invest in federal programs that support the teaching profession. It will ensure all starting teachers across the country are paid at least $60,000 a year. And it will increase wages for teachers who have made teaching their profession – working on the job for 10, 20, 30 years. This legislation will benefit every public school district in every state in America. Now, I know that some of you are thinking that sounds great. But how are you going to pay for this bill? And I will tell you. By demanding that the wealthiest people in America – those who inherit over $3.5 million – pay their fair share of taxes.
Legislation that I introduced last Congress to reform the estate tax would raise about $450 billion over the next decade – which is precisely how much the Teacher Pay Act would cost. And it would not increase taxes by one penny on 99.5 percent of Americans who inherit less than $3.5 million.
Let’s be clear: If we can provide over a trillion dollars in tax breaks to the top one percent and large corporations, please don’t tell me that we cannot afford to make sure that every teacher in America is paid at least $60,000 a year.
If we could spend $858 billion last year on the military, more than the next 11 nations combined, please don’t tell me that we cannot make sure that every teacher in America is treated with dignity and respect.
Now, here is the good news. As a result of a strong grassroots movement, led by public school teachers, led by the NEA and the AFT, some states and cities are beginning to move in the right direction.
In recent years, the state of New Mexico has increased teacher pay by an average of 20 percent. Alabama increased teacher pay by 21 percent. And the City of Detroit – a city that has had one of the worst teacher shortages in America – increased the starting salary of teachers to $51,000 this fall – a 33% increase from what they received just six years ago.
Raising teacher salaries to at least $60,000 a year and ensuring competitive pay for all of our teachers is one of the most important steps we can take to address the teacher shortage in America and to improve the quality of our public school system in America.
I look forward to working with all of you to make that a reality.