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Many kids grow up thinking their teachers live at school. Children become stupefied at the sight of their teacher at a grocery store or a restaurant. They can’t fathom their teachers having lives outside of the schoolhouse. Kids’ parents, on the other hand, may be shocked to learn that many teachers can’t afford to live near the schools in which they teach.
This March, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris of California announced a plan to increase teacher salaries, which have not kept pace with the cost of living. Teachers’ pay is also out of line with that of other professionals. Teachers earn 11.1 percent less than other workers with comparable education and experience, according to the nonprofit think tank the Economic Policy Institute. Harris’ proposal would raise teachers’ salaries over the next decade to help close gaps between what teachers earn and the cost of living.
Teachers’ annual earnings vary greatly across the country. In 2016, the average teacher salary in most states fell between $45,000 and $55,000. Adjusted for cost of living, salaries that year were the lowest in Hawaii, where an average salary of almost $60,000 dropped to $40,246 when the high cost of living was factored in. Teachers in Michigan, where the average salary was $63,878, had the highest adjusted earnings — $71,773.
In San Francisco, where Harris formerly served as the district attorney, teachers earn $70,000 on average. However, many teachers struggle to live close to the community they serve, where the median rent of a one-bedroom apartment in the city is roughly $44,000 a year. Those who do live locally can expect to spend as much as 70 percent of their income on housing. That amount is far beyond the 50 percent measure that the government defines as severely cost-burdened, meaning the monthly cost of housing makes it difficult to pay for necessities. The situation is so serious that Bay Area officials have proposed constructing low-cost housing units specifically for teachers and other school employees.
Last year, Miami-Dade housing and education officials sought an interesting way to close the cost of living gap with a proposal to build a middle school with one floor designated as teacher housing.
But living in teacher dorms shouldn’t be a part of the job description. Educators are vital to the overall economic wellbeing of the country. We need to increase their pay in a way that doesn’t involve turning schools into housing shelters. But is the proposed infusion of federal cash the answer?
Harris’ plan calls for each state to establish goals for teachers’ base pay. For every $1 a state invests in raising teachers’ salaries to meet that goal, the federal government would put in $3 until the pay gap between teachers’ current salary and the goal salary is closed. Teachers who work in high-need schools, often attended by a disproportionate number of students of color, would receive a greater raise, aiding teacher recruitment and retention efforts. Over the course of 10 years under Harris’ plan, teachers would receive a raise of $13,500 on average, an increase of 23 percent. The plan also calls for investment of funds in the teaching profession. Half of these designated federal funds would go to teacher training programs at “minority-serving institutions,” including historically black colleges and Hispanic serving institutions, where many black and brown teacher candidates are educated.
Consultants who worked on the plan estimate its total cost at $315 billion. Harris says the funding will come from an increase in the estate tax for the top 1 percent. The federal estate tax, which only affects the very wealthy, is levied on property — including cash, real estate, trusts, and other assets — that is transferred from the deceased to their heirs. The tax only applies to assets valued beyond a level set by the IRS. Since 2001, that exemption level has increased from $675,000 to $11.4 million. As a result, those inheriting millions in property often pay the same amount as those who don’t have inheritances: nothing at all. Harris plans to close this loophole, and others exploited by the rich, and support teachers along the way.
Harris’ plan is novel and by far the boldest effort to address diminishing teacher pay, a hot-button issue that in the last two years has motivated teachers across the country to go on strike. Harris will no doubt attract attention from teachers, and particularly from the more than 75 percent of the profession who are women.
However, even if the federal government helped pay for higher teacher salaries, states might be hesitant to take the cash: Salary levels are used to determine retirement, health and other benefits that states and districts are still on the hook to pay for. States may find themselves unable to take the federal funds if it means having to raise revenue to pay for related benefits. In addition, many states have grown tired of federal intervention. In 2015 the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was drafted in a bipartisan fashion, but when federal attempts to improve schools appeared to encroach upon state control of education, both parties bucked President Obama’s reform efforts, which included the Race to the Top initiative designed to stimulate education reform.
Teachers need raises, and I welcome creative efforts to get them, but federal cash is not a simple, quick fix. Based on the results of most of the statewide strikes, mobilization seems to be an effective strategy to force states to increase pay. Harris can actually do a lot from her federal Senate seat to reduce state spending on line items that crowd state budgets: With her governmental influence at the federal level, she can help curb rising health care and criminal justice costs that burden states.
What’s clear is that Harris’ proposal brings much-needed attention to the problem of teacher pay. Something must be done. Kids grow up thinking their teachers live at school. Let’s not let that become the only option available.