Why Seattle Teachers Strike, By the Numbers

Salaries, cost of living, housing prices, and much more can create bad conditions for teachers.

Seattle teachers began a strike in early September to demand higher wages.  (Cassin A. Stacy/Flickr)

Teachers in Seattle began a strike in early September over a dispute with the city’s school district about what they should earn.

So what do teachers make, how does it compare with other white-collar professions, and should they get a raise?

Here’s a quick look at the numbers.

-4.5% — This figure is the reason for the strike. It represents the decline in teacher salaries in Washington between 1999 and 2012. Teachers in the Seattle area have gone more than five years without a cost-of-living raise at a time when a surge in the area’s tech industry has sent housing prices soaring. According to Zillow, at the start of 2013, the median sale price per square foot of a Seattle house was $266. In July 2015, it was $376. For context, the average starting salary at Microsoft, the tech giant in town, is above $90,000. Many of the Microsoft employees who live in Seattle have school-aged children enrolled in the city’s schools, but teachers say they can’t afford to live where they teach anymore.

$56,000 — That’s what public-school teachers earn, on average, in the United States. Teacher pay varies widely, from more than $70,000 in states like California and Massachusetts to the high $30,000s in South Dakota.

$53,500 — This is the average teacher pay in Washington state, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The average mid-career teacher salary in the Seattle area, where the strike is happening, is closer to $60,000, but the cost of living is also higher. A new teacher in Seattle is making a salary in the mid-$40,000 range. (The Seattle Times has an interactive wage comparison tool that’s very helpful.) According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living-wage calculator, that’s enough to support a single person, but it’s not sufficient to support a family.

67% — When Chicago teachers launched a strike for higher pay in 2012, The New York Times took a look at how much teachers earn compared with other professionals. If you’re a teacher, the findings are dismal. Teachers in the United States earn about 67 percent of what college-educated, full-time workers make on average. While teachers in the rest of the world don’t fare well compared with their peers, they fare better than American teachers. Teachers in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, like Spain and Korea, earn about 82 percent of what other college-educated workers earn.

53,000 — This is the number of Seattle public-school students who have missed five days of instruction as the teachers’ union and school district debate teacher pay. Working parents have had to rush to find child care. The Associated Press reported that the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department is watching 2,000 kids, which is costing the city more than $20,000 per day.

The broader issue here is the difficulty districts face in attracting and retaining hiqh-quality teachers. Fewer young people want to go into teaching when the pay is so low relative to other professions. NPR reported this year that, in California, the state that produces the most new teachers, enrollment in teacher-training programs has dropped 53 percent in five years. A 2014 poll found that most people surveyed think teacher salaries should increase at least somewhat. Budgets are tight, but raising teacher pay might also lift the overall quality of the teachers educating the nation’s next workforce.