School districts all over the country are experiencing teacher shortages. The main reason is obvious: teachers are seriously underpaid. The term coined to explain the phenomenon is the teacher weekly wage penalty, or “the percent by which public school teachers are paid less in wages and compensation than other college-educated workers.” This number reached a record 21.4 percent in 2018. That means that choosing to go into teaching over another profession upon completing college results in a loss of more than one-fifth of potential earnings.
Teachers are overworked, too. It’s already a demanding job, and cuts in public-school funding — which have been ongoing since the start of the Great Recession and exacerbated by the charter-school movement — coupled with increasingly demanding performance metrics make school work environments even tougher. “Today, teachers teach, discipline, support, remediate, attend countless trainings, prepare students for dozens of evaluations at the local and state level and are told to do more with less,” writes Virginia middle-school teacher Joy Kirk. “This mantra grew louder during the recession and continues today. During the recession our responsibilities and accountability grew while our support and financial assistance shrunk.”
Why would a person choose a career that’s difficult and undercompensated over one that’s equally difficult but better compensated, or equally compensated but less difficult? Furthermore, teaching requires training, and tuition prices are rising across the board. People who might otherwise be drawn to the profession are put off by the prospect of taking on debt they see no clear way to pay down without moonlighting. An increasing number of teachers leave the profession after only a few years to make ends meet elsewhere, and more than a quarter of all teachers now say they don’t plan to stay in the classroom.
This situation creates a crisis, one that’s already upon us but can get a lot worse. “The shortage constitutes a crisis because of its negative effects on students, teachers, and the education system at large,” write researchers at the Economic Policy Institute. But we can trace the impact of the crisis even further. Of course there are parents who want the best for their kids and don’t have the money to pay for private school, too. And then there’s the glaring fact that no institution in our society is made better off by the deterioration of the public education system. Where will people receive the training to participate as full members of society? If it metastasizes, this problem is eventually going to affect everybody, not just teachers themselves.
Politicians and policy experts are far too complacent about this state of affairs. It’s actually ironic, given the deep market fundamentalism that pervades the bipartisan political imaginary. Any economics textbook will tell you that when a given wage fails to attract the needed amount of labor, that’s the market signaling that the wage needs to be raised. Yet, far from endorsing that “market logic,” those who place the greatest faith in markets are almost univerally hostile to higher teacher pay. Paying teachers more would require taxing the rich and redistributing their wealth in a democratic fashion, and the so-called market fundamentalists aren’t interested in that, no matter how logical in the long term.
There’s no natural, automatic intervention on its way to correct the teacher-shortage crisis. Getting and retaining good teachers will require wage hikes, and wage hikes for teachers will only be won through struggle. The most important arena of struggle is on the ground, in districts and states and through teachers’ unions. The teachers’ strike wave that began in 2018 showed how it’s done. Fed up with poor pay and working conditions, teachers took matters into their own hands. In cities and states across the nation, they’ve won major gains — not by waiting for a miracle, but by withholding their essential labor and creating political crises to which lawmakers are forced to respond.
But there’s another arena in which we must be prepared to fight for public education, and that’s national politics. Bernie Sanders has introduced a proposal aimed at this very problem: he wants to use the power of the presidency to work with states to establish a national teachers’ salary minimum of $60,000. His plan would adjust the salary floor to the cost of living, which means it will be higher in states where daily life is more expensive.
Of course, this is insufficient on its own, which is why Sanders’s Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education also calls for large-scale reinvestment of public funds in schools, including a national per-pupil spending floor, a moratorium on new funding for charter schools, a complete ban on for-profit charter schools, and, as seen in his Workplace Democracy Plan, many measures to empower teachers’ unions to wage the struggle from the ground up.
If implemented, this plan could help prevent a coming crisis in public education. Electing the candidate who put it on the table would be a good start. But the struggle won’t end there — the fight to save public education requires all hands on deck. Or, as Sanders likes to say, “Not Me, Us.”