Since the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, many schools across the United States have responded by closing their doors for the remainder of the academic year. As a result, these schools have opted for online learning and in doing so, have revitalized a collective appreciation for teachers nationwide. Parents and celebrities alike have taken to social media to praise teachers for quickly adjusting students to the new world of remote learning. Television and film writer Shonda Rhimes’ call for teachers to “make a billion dollars a year” elucidates the grim reality for many educators: they are historically and consistently underpaid.
The closure of schools has caused disarray for teachers throughout the country; educators have hastened to adapt their teaching to the online classroom, but not without adversity. Moreover, teachers have also begun to serve as beacons of comfort to many students experiencing trauma at home: one teacher has resorted to making Snapchat videos to “help them ease their anxiety.” The greatest challenge educators have dealt with centers around accommodating students who do not have access to a digital device or internet — an issue that affects 3 million students in the U.S.
For years prior to the pandemic, K-12 public school teachers have wrestled with the ongoing conflict of substandard salaries. In 2019, U.S. college graduates had an average starting salary of $50,944, but according to the National Education Association, the national average starting salary for educators is $39,249. In New York City, higher starting salaries and considerable financial growth tend to engender a sense of disillusionment for those outside the profession. Teachers’ salaries in the city are especially competitive in comparison to the national average; for the 2019-2020 school year, the New York City Department of Education reported a starting salary of $57,845 for teachers with a bachelor’s degree and no prior pedagogical experience.
In particular, the starting salary for New York City teachers alludes to the difficulties many teachers face from living in an area with a high cost of living. The teachers at the bottom of the pedagogical totem pole serve as a prime example: the lowest paid teachers in the city spend almost 65% of their salary on rent alone. With a salary of $57,845, an New York City public school teacher qualifies for public housing in an 80% Area Median Income area — areas with an AMI between 50% and 80% are deemed low-income, suggesting that many of these teachers fall into that bracket. Binh Tai, a teacher at University Neighborhood Middle School in Manhattan, lamented the struggles of living on a teacher’s salary in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
“I’ve been teaching for 17 years, and I’ve been working two or three jobs since 2003 just to be able to afford to live in New York City,” Tai told Time magazine. Research findings published by the Pew Research Center corroborate Tai’s statement, concluding that 16% of public school teachers nationwide held summer jobs while 18% worked an additional job during the school year. Teachers juggling multiple jobs during and outside of the academic year can potentially threaten the quality of education they give, as their focus is split between teaching and their other work.
To remedy the issue of inadequate teachers’ salaries, state and federal governments must reevaluate the allocation of their budgets. For the 2019-2020 academic year, New York State and New York City had a combined budget of $34 billion toward education. However, despite a $2.7 billion surplus for the current fiscal year, Governor Andrew Cuomo recently hinted at budget cuts for education due to a projected $10 billion decrease in tax revenue as a result of the pandemic. Under normal circumstances, part of the $2.7 billion surplus should be dedicated towards raising starting salaries for teachers to help ease financial burdens.
Efforts to increase teacher salaries have also indirectly been impeded on a federal level by proposals to cut the national education budget — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos presented a budget plan in 2019 that would effectively cut over $8.5 billion from education funding. Nevertheless, Congress’ approval of a $2 trillion stimulus package and disbursement of stimulus checks to roughly 90 million individuals showcases their ability to make a positive economic difference to the larger population. The same tenacity and eagerness with which lawmakers have passed exorbitantly high military budgets and the creation of the Space Force should be maintained after the pandemic and aimed towards raising salaries for teachers, starting with the national hourly pay, which is currently $15.
For the American educational system to fully utilize its potential, new laws that support and protect educators must be enacted at both the state and federal levels. First and foremost, the federal government should establish a higher minimum pay standard nationwide — should states be unable to pay this amount for teachers, they can request a categorical grant to help match any salary gaps. Additionally, teachers should receive weekly stipends during the summer for any incurred expenses — as of today, teachers do not earn any pay throughout the summer. A shift of partial budgetary responsibility to the federal government can help provide long-awaited financial security to American educators.
The unexpected shift to a new style of learning due to the coronavirus outbreak has reopened the case for teachers to receive upgraded salaries. With most of the U.S. on pause, now is the time to redefine the standards of compensation for educators. Teachers should not be tormented by the dichotomy between pursuing a better salary and following the career they love. The finesse with which teachers have handled the abrupt closures of their schools — by reshaping lesson plans and providing emotional support for students — cements the fact that their salary raises are long overdue.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, May 4, 2020 e-print edition. Email Nicole Chiarella at [email protected]