Flush with cash, states plan teacher pay hikes

The push comes as states face an education workforce crisis.
Alexis Ozuna, teacher at Manzanita Community School, marches with other teachers and supporters in Oakland, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. Teachers in Oakland, California, went on strike Thursday in the country’s latest walkout by educators over classroom conditions and pay. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

PHOENIX — Four years ago, teachers protesting low wages walked off the job in states across the country in one of the largest labor actions in recent memory. Few places were as hard hit as Arizona, where more than a thousand schools shut down until legislators agreed to a quarter-billion-dollar funding measure.

Now, as states find themselves flush with cash, legislators from across the country and on both sides of the aisle are planning to raise teacher pay again — in many cases by thousands of dollars a year.

“Pay has to be competitive, it really does, with private sector peers that require four-year degrees,” said Arizona Rep.-elect Matt Gress (R), who will chair the House Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees education.

As Gov. Doug Ducey’s (R) budget director during the strike, Gress was in the room for negotiations that led to a substantial pay raise for teachers across the state.

Now, as an incoming legislator, he has proposed another $10,000 pay raise aimed at teachers who meet or exceed performance expectations. In an interview, Gress said the raises are necessary to fill thousands of vacant teaching positions needed to combat the historic learning loss students suffered during the pandemic.

“We’re faced with a generational challenge to remediate students and their learning because of the pandemic, and we don’t have the workforce to handle that. It’s kind of a perfect storm,” Gress said. “We just have to recruit people who are in Arizona to enter the education profession. And part of that is compensation and benefits.”

Many other states are taking the same approach. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R) has proposed raising teacher compensation packages by $6,000 a year. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) used his final budget proposal before leaving office to more than double funding for school districts, in hopes that the added money will go to higher wages.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) offered a plan in October to raise school employee wages by 5% next year, setting up a potential showdown with the Republican legislature as Beshear prepares to run for re-election. Legislators in Oklahoma, North Carolina and Missouri have all proposed raising teacher pay in next year’s legislative sessions.

Those states are following others that already boosted pay. In the last year, governors in New Mexico, Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi all signed off on large-scale wage increases for teachers.

The push to improve teacher pay comes amid a confluence of challenging factors facing schools.

States across the country are reporting a growing education workforce crisis. Researchers at Kansas State University and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign found that an estimated 36,500 teaching positions are unfilled across the nation — a study that did not include data from large states such as California, New York, Ohio, Massachusetts and Washington.

The shortage has been exacerbated by the pandemic, when teachers reported stress and burnout as they quit their jobs.

At the same time, pandemic-era lockdowns and closures caused an historic decline in reading and math scores, sharpening the public focus on education.

“You’re going to see governors investing in literacy programs and mathematics programs, and that starts with teachers,” said Jay W. Ragley, a former top official in the South Carolina Department of Education who now runs Advocatus, an education consulting business.

And, for once, states actually have the money to raise wages. Post-pandemic revenues remain near record highs, while federal stimulus dollars padded budgets and put states in a position to spend.

Teacher salaries have increased only gradually in recent decades. A study published in August by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute found the average weekly wages for public school teachers had increased by just $29, when adjusted for inflation, since 1996.

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics at the Department of Education show that in 2021 teacher salaries ranged from an average of $47,655 in Mississippi, the lowest in the nation, to $87,738 in New York, the highest.

In many states, local control rules make raising teacher salaries more complicated than simply passing a bill. If Sisolak’s successor, Gov.-elect Joe Lombardo (R), takes up Sisolak’s proposed spending levels, the state will allocate more money to schools in hopes that local districts will raise wages, though the state has no way to force those districts to do so.

In Arizona, about a third of the money legislators allocated for teacher pay raises several years ago went instead to administrators or other school staff, according to a state inspector general’s report.

Gress said his legislation would aim to funnel new raises directly to teachers.

“It bypasses the discretion of our local school boards. I’m all for local control, but in this case I think local control got it wrong, because the priority of Arizonans was first to raise teacher pay, not administrator pay,” he said. “We’ve spent billions of dollars in new funding for K-12 education, and I think the conversation is now shifting to alright we’re investing, now we want to see outcomes. We want to see more money getting to the students and the classroom.”