Why America's Teachers Haven't Been Getting Raises

It's not just educators in West Virginia and Oklahoma who have watched their wages and benefits erode since the Great Recession.

A teacher reads to sitting schoolchildren
Steve Pope / AP

Larry Cagle is angry. At 54 years of age, he makes $34,500 a year teaching critical-reading skills to public high-school students in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “I do construction and lawn maintenance in the summer” to make ends meet, he said. “I moved here from Florida five years ago, and in Florida I made $25,000 a year more.”

He talked about the number of public-school teachers he knew working second jobs on nights and weekends, flipping burgers or hauling luggage at the airport. Teachers digging into their own pockets to pay for students’ basic needs and classroom supplies. Teachers living in cars, taking out loans, panhandling for more money, struggling to pay their own bills. “My school is one of the highest-performing schools in the state,” he said, estimating that two in three of the teachers he had worked with in the past half decade had left for other jobs or retired. “These are primary positions, not ancillary positions. This is math, science, foreign language, arts, history. We had two teachers who just walked out [and quit] recently.”

The successful two-week-long strike of public-school workers in West Virginia—as well as the imminent strike of teachers in Oklahoma, led by grassroots activists, including Cagle—has thrown into relief the financial difficulties that thousands of education professionals face. Yet those difficulties are not unique to those two states. Despite the perception that educator jobs are unionized, pay decently well, and are guaranteed-tenure, hundreds of thousands of American teachers have seen their wages and benefits erode in recent years, more so than for many other types of workers.

Teachers’ fortunes are emblematic of public workers’ more generally since the Great Recession. Because of the stable nature of government employment, such employees were largely spared the worst of the layoffs and wage cuts that afflicted private businesses. That said, these jobs have not rebounded in the same way that many private-sector ones have, either, with public finances still squeezed, public workforces still smaller than their pre-recession peak, and local government officials still hesitant to make critical investments in their workforces and infrastructure.

Granted, by many measures and in many places, teaching remains a solidly middle-class profession. Government data shows that the average teacher earns about $59,000 a year, with many school districts offering good benefits and generous retirement plans. Andrew Biggs, an economist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, pushed against the notion that teachers are broadly underpaid. “It’s a good and a very family-friendly job,” he told me, citing its reasonable hours and long summer break. “Why should you pay them more? They’re on strike—that’s a reason to pay them more.”

Yet in some states, teachers are earning close to poverty wages, as the West Virginia strike and the threatened Oklahoma strike have demonstrated. Indeed, those two states offer compensation roughly a third lower than the national average for all public teachers, numbers that do not look much better adjusting for the cost of living. Moreover, there is data demonstrating that the teacher pay gap—meaning what public-school teachers earn compared with comparably qualified individuals in the private sector—is large and growing. The left-of-center Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has found that teachers’ average weekly wages actually fell $30 per week between 1996 and 2015 after adjusting for inflation, whereas they increased measurably among all college graduates. EPI also has estimated that public-school teachers were earning about 2 percent less than comparably qualified private-sector workers in 1994, a disparity measure that grew to 17 percent by 2015.

“Teachers actually gained ground in the depths of the recession, as their pay didn’t fall, whereas pay for other workers did,” Larry Mishel, an economist at EPI, told me. “But when there was a recovery, they didn’t get much recovery.” Indeed, as state and local finances rebounded, many red and purple states cut their income taxes, with property taxes remaining depressed due to the subprime-mortgage crisis. The result: sharp declines in public-school funding per student, reduced salary increases through the recovery, and widespread teacher shortages. Teacher enrollments dropped from 691,000 in 2009 to just 451,000 a year in 2014 as attrition—meaning the share of educators dropping out of the profession—hit 8 percent a year.* Nationwide, the number of teachers and other school workers has fallen by 135,000 since 2008, a recent analysis of government data by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-of-center think tank, found. Yet as that number declined, the number of students rose by 1.4 million.

This squeeze on school funding has made teaching a less attractive or sustainable job in many cases. “Highly publicized teacher layoffs during the budget downturn left a mark on the public psyche, including that of individuals who might have been considering a teaching career,” argued one report by the Learning Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Palo Alto–based think tank. This post-recession combination of fewer teachers and less funding has also, the report noted, predictably led to larger class sizes and less in the way of learning materials.

Plus, teachers in a number of states have far fewer union protections than they had in previous years. Indeed, the share of teachers in a union has fallen to less than half, driven in part by older, unionized teachers retiring, the rise of certain districts’ reliance on charters and other private education options, and legal changes that have curtailed the ability of unions to bargain on behalf of workers. In some states, like Wisconsin, that decline in unionization has led straightforwardly to declines in compensation. “How much further can you fall behind? These teachers have had it and are standing up and hoping to educate the public on what’s been happening on pay, benefits, and retirement,” said Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley. “There’s been erosion in all these compensation factors over time, especially in states without the architecture for unionization.”

Cagle told me that he felt like some in Oklahoma were deaf to educators’ concerns because they wanted public schools to struggle. “This state absolutely would like to do away with public school systems and move to private schools, to voucher systems that let parents to take their kids where they want to go,” he told me. “They’re moving that agenda so aggressively that they’re looking for public schools to fail.” (Oklahoma does have a voucher movement, but also a lauded universal public preschool program, meaning its public-educational ideals are not purely conservative.)

In Oklahoma, educators are asking for a $6,000-a-year raise, to be granted by April 1. If not, teachers plan to walk out—and are encouraging and advising their peers in Arizona and Kentucky to do the same. With the economy finally near full employment and lower-wage workers finally getting a raise, it is time for teachers to get one too, they argue. And educators across the country might be listening.

*This article initially misstated the year that teacher enrollments dropped to 451,000. We regret the error.