The complaint—which was filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., late last week by the American Federation of Teachers and a handful of individual public-school educators—is a capstone to the financial exasperation that, some advocates argue, has plagued K–12 teachers for more than a decade. They had counted on that loan forgiveness, they say, and planned their lives around it; its failure to materialize, the complaint’s supports allege, falls on households whose finances are already strained. Teaching, the complaint implies, is a financially calamitous path, and without loan forgiveness, teachers’ families face a lifetime of hardship.
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Teachers have never been particularly well paid, but in recent decades their financial situation has gotten remarkably worse, mostly for two major reasons. The first is that pay has not grown, concludes a recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, which finds that relative teacher wages “have been eroding for over half a century.” When adjusted for inflation, teachers’ average weekly pay has decreased by $21 from 1996 to 2018, according to the report, while that for other college graduates rose by $323. Data from the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which federal statistics are available, show that K–12 teachers on average earned about $58,000 a year. In states such as Oklahoma and West Virginia—whose teaching forces each staged massive, high-profile strikes last year—the average pay is less than $46,000. In many places, educators are earning less in real terms than they did in 2009.
And the second pressure is the costs: In those same years that teacher pay has stagnated, common costs for a teacher’s household—housing, child care, higher education—have gotten much more expensive. That’s especially true in certain metro areas—San Francisco, Denver, and Seattle—where housing costs have exploded. Though these places see their real-estate markets driven by entrepreneurs, tech workers, bankers, and so on, they still need teachers, of course. In some of these places, officials have considered establishing affordable-housing communities that would be earmarked for teachers. On top of this, it’s become more common in the years since the recession for teachers to spend their own money on school supplies: Almost all public-school educators these days report shelling out personal cash for classroom products, allocating close to $500 a year on average, according to federal data.
Obviously, this financial picture becomes all the tighter when someone is also paying down student loans. Most bachelor’s-degree graduates—65 percent—have student debt, the average amount surpassing $28,000, according to the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit that seeks to make higher education more affordable and available for Americans. But as of the 2015-16 school year, a little more than half of all K–12 educators also had postbaccalaureate qualifications like master’s degrees, which means they carry even more debt. A 2014 study found that people who’d earned a master’s in education had an average debt amount of roughly $51,000. (Those with an MBA, on the other hand, graduated with $42,000 in debt, on average.) For K–12 educators with a master’s degree, the average student-debt amount more than doubled between 2000 and 2012, according to one Education Next analysis.