In 1979, teachers earned 5.5% less than their peers, but that pay gap has now widened to 18.7%. Adjusting for inflation, researchers found that, on average, teachers' weekly pay decreased by $27 from 1996 to 2017. Meanwhile, average weekly pay has risen by $137 for college graduates in other professional roles.
As a result, teachers throughout the country are struggling to make ends meet with salaries that are often below middle-class income levels. Unable to attract and retain talented educators, schools in the US are facing teacher shortages, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Overcrowded and underfunded classrooms across the US have made teaching more challenging, but low teacher salaries have made it difficult for schools to attract talented educators equipped to handle such conditions.
In low-income districts, where students often suffer from lack of resources at home, teachers face several additional of challenges. About 40% of new teachers quit within the first five years and this rate is 50% higher at schools in low-income communities. Inadequate support and pay for teachers ultimately affects students and those already experiencing poverty are most vulnerable.
Between 2009 and 2014, 8% of teachers dropped out of the profession each year, CityLab reports.
Underscoring the nationwide pay gap, teacher pay varies drastically from state to state and district to district. While the national average teacher salary is $58,951, educators in Mississippi on average make $42,925 and in South Dakota $42,668 per year.
This spring, teachers went on strike across the US protesting low pay and inadequate resources in their schools. Teachers in West Virginia led the charge in March with a nine-day walkout. In response to their protests, legislators conceded to a 5% pay raise.
"It's not the raise, as much as it is having the respect that we deserve from the government, and I think that was proven," one Calhoun County teacher told the New York Times.
In Oklahoma — where teachers make about 67 cents to the dollar compared to other college graduates — the teachers' union followed suit a month later with its own walkout.
Meanwhile, in Arizona, teachers led a "walk-in day" demanding a 20% pay raise and a return to pre-recession level school funding. After five days of protesting, their efforts were met with a 19% pay increase, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Critics of this spring's teacher strikes argue that teachers receive a number of benefits that offset their lower salaries, such as retirement plans, health and life insurance, lower payroll taxes, and long summer breaks, reports CityLab.
However, beyond their shrinking salaries, the advantages teachers once enjoyed are also taking a hit. CityLab reports that in several states, teachers have far fewer union protections than they did previously.