Are Teachers Underpaid?

by Thomas Johnson ‘19

Last February, more than 20,000 public school teachers across West Virginia went on strike, refusing to go back to work until they received increased salaries and healthcare coverage. Within two weeks of the start of the strikes, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice caved into the teachers’ demands, granting a 5-percent pay increase for public school teachers state-wide. Recently, teacher unions across the nation have once again erupted in protest. Inspired by the success of the strikes last year, teachers in Los Angeles, Denver, and Oakland have demanded across the board salary increases, reduction in class sizes, and an expansion of their classroom budget. While the protests occuring now are certainly not unheard of in recent years, they do reignite the question: are teachers paid enough?

According to a 2017 study, the average starting salary of a public school teacher in the United States is approximately $38,617 (non-starting $58,950). While this number may initially seem adequate to some, in reality teacher salary fluctuates greatly from state to state, and even district to district. Certain states lack adequate funding for public education and, as a result, teachers often suffer reduced salaries. Montana, an extreme example of this case, has an average starting teacher salary of just $30,036 (non-starting $51,422), while more funded areas, such as here in Montgomery County, start teachers off with an average salary of around $44,159 (non-starting $61,068).

In the United States, public school teachers are required to obtain at least a bachelor’s degree in education before they are allowed to teach at a public level. By comparison, the average salary of full-time workers with a bachelor’s degree is around $59,124. Unlike most careers, teachers do not work full time during the summer and are therefore unemployed for around 2 ½ months per year. Despite not being paid, teachers are still expected to spend their summer preparing for the upcoming school year, and end up working around 21.5 hours per week on average. Due to this absence of pay during the summer, around 67 percent of teachers end up taking part-time summer job.

A study conducted by an international study group of 26 European nations found that countries with higher teacher salaries tended to produce students with higher test scores. Logically speaking, increasing teacher salary encourages job competition, and ultimately provides more qualified teachers. Having more qualified teachers allows students to better understand their classes and perform better academically. Public opinion seems to be in support of increased teacher salaries as, in a recent survey conducted by PBS, around 65 percent of Americans believe that public school teachers are underpaid. When these people were asked what a “fair” raise for teachers would be, the average amount stated was around $7,500.

Based on the evidence, as well as the general support of the public, a universal increase in teacher salary of around 5 percent (and higher in already low-paying states) is merited. This salary increase would not only appease teacher unions and prevent future strikes from occurring, but it is also if very likely to create more job competition and increase the quality of education nationwide.