In recent years, Texas — along with several other states and cities — has increased teacher salaries, especially as concerns grow about teacher shortages. But that has been largely reactive.
Federal and state policymakers need to question why that is, and they should proactively ensure teachers have a salary that reflects their true contributions to society before shortages happen or strikes are threatened.
In 2019, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a bipartisan bill that included $6.5 billion in new public spending. The new law included the Teacher Incentive Allotment, which directs up to $32,000 for each master teacher who works in high-needs schools.
The bill came after several teacher strikes in nearby states and as districts became concerned about growing teacher shortages.
Similarly, the average teacher salary in Florida is $37,636, but the Florida governor is asking for an increase of about $10,000 a year to stem looming teacher shortages that will affect student achievement in the years to come.
Once again, policymakers are reactive to teacher shortages rather than providing teachers with a salary that reflects their contributions to society.
The Chicago Teachers Union recently initiated a strike demanding the district increase pay for teachers, provide smaller class sizes, hire more nurses and social workers, and adopt programs that promote equity and social justice in schools and communities.
Although the district is willing to make some concessions, many teachers are frustrated that supports were not given out years ago.
Anyone who has been a teacher will tell you that teachers are not in the job for the money. In fact, teachers often unselfishly spend hundreds or thousands of dollars a year to supplement classroom supplies and help students in need. The Economic Policy Institute recently reported that the average public school teacher dips into his or her own pocket for at least $459 per year, which is not reimbursed by school districts.
The consequence of policymakers ignoring how low pay and a lack of adequate funding affects teachers is inducing teacher anxiety and turnover.
For example, research from the San Francisco Unified School District showed high levels of economic anxiety due to the cost of living in comparison to teachers elsewhere, which predicts measures of job performance, attitudes toward their job, job attendance, and the likelihood that they will depart within 2 years.
Many teachers have a second job to make ends meet, which contributes to teacher burnout and can distract teachers from their primary duties. The impact of teacher turnover is also costly for school districts, which are forced to spend more money in their human resource offices to recruit and train new teachers.
Teacher turnover is also costly within schools because it fractures important relationships between schools, families and students. Teacher retention in urban schools is even more critical, because these schools may require higher levels of teacher collaboration to meet the diverse needs of students and families.
States and large urban districts cannot afford to wait until shortages affect school operations or until thousands of teachers strike. Teacher salaries and public education funding should be at the forefront of our presidential debates and in state legislatures.
Policymakers would be wise to support teacher pay increases, including bonuses and loan forgiveness, because these measures decrease teacher turnover. In addition, we need to develop sustainable and flexible funding models that account for cost of living and the unique needs of each community.
Investments into our teachers and schools cannot only come at times when we have shortages and strikes. The opportunities that are lost when teachers are burning out, suffering from financial insecurity, and slowly exiting the profession already comes at too great a cost to our schools and our children.
Our teacher pay and school finance policies must reflect the powerful contribution teachers make to our society and to our most important gift, our children.
David DeMatthews is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin.
Lebon Daniel James III is a Ph.D. candidate in the educational policy and planning program in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin.