PREPARED REMARKS: Sanders Leads HELP Committee Hearing on the Crises Facing Public School Teachers in America

WASHINGTON, June 20 – Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), today led the committee in a hearing titled, “The Immediate and Long-Term Challenges Facing Public School Teachers: Low, Pay, Teacher Shortages, and Underfunded Public Schools.”

Sanders’ remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below and can be watched HERE:

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions will come to order.

In a moment, we will hear directly from educators from across the country about the enormous effort it takes to provide a quality public education for every child in our country.

In my view, if we are serious about the need for a bright and hopeful future for America, we must understand that there is no more important job in our country than educating our young people.

And yet, for decades, public school teachers have been overworked, underpaid and under-staffed.

Compared to many other occupations, our public school teachers are more likely to experience higher levels of anxiety, stress and burnout – which was only exacerbated by the pandemic.

As a result, nearly 8 percent of teachers leave their profession each and every year – double the rate of Canada and many other countries.

According to the most recent statistics, some 300,000 teaching positions—nearly 10% of all teaching positions nationwide—have been left vacant or filled by teachers not fully certified for their assignments.

In addition, teacher turnover rates are 50 percent higher in school districts with high poverty rates than districts that serve wealthier students.

Incredibly, 44% of public school teachers are now quitting their profession within 5 years.

Why is that?  Why are so many public school teachers leaving the profession they love in droves? 

Why do we have a massive shortage of teachers in America?

Well, there are many reasons.  But one of the primary reasons is the extremely low pay teachers receive.

According to the most recent statistics, the average starting teacher salary in America is less than $45,000 a year and nearly 40 percent of school districts in our country pay teachers a starting salary of less than $40,000 a year.

Incredibly, the average public school teacher in America is making nearly $100 a week less than he or she did 28 years ago 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 or other government benefits. 

In America today, nearly 20 percent of public school teachers in our country 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.

Meanwhile, because of a lack of resources, about 80 percent of public school teachers are forced to spend their own money on classroom supplies without being reimbursed – which comes out to about 13 percent of their first monthly paycheck.

The situation has become so absurd that 4 hedge fund managers on Wall Street made more money last year than every kindergarten teacher in America – nearly 120,000 teachers. That should not be happening in the United States of America in the year 2024.

Public school teachers should not be forced to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet. 

They should not be forced to apply for food stamps or public housing because they are not paid enough to feed their families or put a roof over their heads. 

Further, as bad as public school teachers are paid, our nation’s school custodians, food service workers, and other school staff earn even less.

In America today, nearly 40 percent of support staff in our public schools earn less than $25,000 a year.

If we are going to attract the best and brightest young people into teaching, if we are going to encourage teachers to teach in underserved communities, if we are going to improve teacher retention and morale, and if we are going to improve student academic outcomes, then, in my view, we need to pay teachers in America decent wages and decent benefits.

And that is why I introduced the Pay Teachers Act with nine of my colleagues this Congress.

This bill would make sure that no teacher in America is paid less than $60,000 a year. 

It would increase wages for teachers that have made teaching their profession – those who have been on the job for 10, 20, 30 years.

It would triple Title I funding – the major federal program that targets resources to high-poverty school districts. 

It would invest in federal programs that provide teachers with the training, education and preparation they need to succeed. 

And it would benefit every public school district in every state in America.

Now, here is the good news. 

As a result of local organizing, led by public school teachers, some states are beginning to do the right thing.

In recent years, the state of New Mexico has increased teacher pay by an average of 20 percent.

The State of Maryland recently became the first state in the country to require all teachers to be paid a competitive salary that is at least $60,000 a year by July of 2026.

The State of Arkansas recently increased minimum teacher salaries from $36,000 a year to $50,000 and provided a minimum $2,000 raise for all teachers during the 2023-2024 academic year.

And the State of Mississippi recently increased teacher pay by 11 percent.

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 our country.

Bottom line is everybody knows the young people are our future. And we have got to deal with the reality that we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost every major nation on earth and we are not attracting, because of inadequate salaries, the kinds of people we need into teaching. So let me just conclude by thanking the hundreds of thousands of teachers in this country. You are heroes. You are heroines. You are doing enormously important work. You are saving children’s lives every single day and I thank you very much for what you do.

Senator Cassidy, you are now recognized for an opening statement.