What’s Behind the Push for a $60K Base Teacher Salary

By Libby Stanford — January 26, 2023 5 min read
Teachers from Seattle Public Schools picket outside Roosevelt High School on what was supposed to be the first day of classes, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Seattle. The first day of classes at Seattle Public Schools was cancelled and teachers are on strike over issues that include pay, mental health support, and staffing ratios for special education and multilingual students.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Low teacher pay is a matter of national security for supporters of legislation that would give states an incentive to raise base teacher salaries to $60,000.

A panel of education experts, including former Education Secretary Arne Duncan and 2019 Teacher of the Year Rodney Robinson, spoke in support of the bill, the American Teacher Act, during an event at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday as its sponsors prepare to reintroduce it in a new Congress.

“To me, this is an issue of national security,” Robinson said. “Who is going to teach the future generation to raise the system, to work the infrastructure, to protect this country if you don’t have teachers?”

The bill’s supporters are hopeful it could be a major step forward in bolstering the teacher pipeline and preventing school staffing shortages. It comes as average teacher salaries have declined in recent years when adjusted for inflation, and teacher job satisfaction appears to be at an all-time low. But the legislation faces uncertain prospects at best in a newly divided Congress.

The new version of the American Teacher Act will include key differences from the first version that Reps. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., and Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., introduced in the U.S. House in December. Still, the key parts of the bill will be the same, with the legislation establishing a four-year federal grant program that would provide states with funds to raise base teacher salaries. The bulk of those funds would go to school districts to help them adjust salaries to meet the $60,000 minimum.

The bill would also set aside funds for the U.S. Department of Education to support a national campaign to raise awareness about the value of teachers, encourage high school and college students to consider teaching as a career, and diversify the teacher population.

“Teachers are heroes, and they deserve a livable, competitive salary that accurately reflects the importance of their role in society,” Wilson said in a speech to kick off Wednesday’s event. “We should be embarrassed that 1 in 5 teachers in this country are forced to work a second job—some in retail, some in Ubers, and others in the service industry—to make ends meet.”

Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., talks to a crowd of supporters about her bill the American Teacher Act, which would incentivize states to raise teacher salaries to a $60,000 minimum, during an event on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, at the U.S. Capitol.

Changes to the bill adjust for cost of living

When the bill was first introduced, it did not include language to account for regional differences in the cost of living, causing some critics to point out that $60,000 isn’t a livable wage in expensive cities like New York or San Francisco.

As Wilson and her team prepare to reintroduce the bill, they’ve made changes to address those concerns, said Phelton Moss, Wilson’s senior policy adviser who has helped draft the bill. The new version will include an additional grant program so states can apply for funding that would provide teachers with cost-of-living adjustments.

The new version will also include a “maintenance of effort” provision, which will set up guardrails so states and school districts legally have to deliver on raising pay after receiving the money from the grant, Moss said. The new bill would also require states that receive the grant to change their salary structures to meet the $60,000 base, which would take legislation in most states, he said. That means if states decide they no longer want to support $60,000 salaries after the federal funding has dried up, their legislatures would have to agree to rewrite the law to switch salary structures back.

“I think there’s a world in which a state could say, ‘we want to reduce teacher salaries,’” after the grant period is over, Moss said. “That [would be] wildly unpopular for that to happen, but we have put guardrails—the maintenance of effort provision being the first one. But the biggest one of all is, you’re actually changing this in state law.”

The new version of the bill would also add a provision to protect teachers covered by collective bargaining agreements.

The policy team working on the bill expects it to be ready for Wilson to reintroduce in the next few days. Moss said they’re currently working through wording on the definition of a “teacher.”

The policymakers haven’t quite landed on how they should define “teacher” in order to avoid supporting states in paying unqualified or underqualified teachers using federal funds. A handful of states, including Arizona, Florida, Missouri, and Oklahoma, have eased certification requirements or dropped requirements that teachers receive a bachelor’s degree.

At the same time, the bill writers don’t want to include provisions that prevent people from diverse backgrounds, who might not have had the resources to participate in teacher certification or licensing programs, from benefiting from the raises.

“We’ve got to walk a fine line with this and not make a lot of assumptions about why people are not credentialed and think about the system that has created these credentials challenges that we do have…that often disenfranchise educators of color,” Moss said.

The economic argument

If it passes, the bill will not be cheap, and it’s likely that more fiscally conservative members of Congress will be hard to win over. Duncan, who served as secretary under former President Barack Obama, estimated that it would cost around $50 billion a year.

But that is well worth it, he said. Every student who drops out of school costs the economy around $272,000 in lower tax contributions, higher reliance on Medicaid and Medicare, higher rates of criminal activity, and a higher reliance on welfare, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But the bill would only be effective if states participate. All of the panelists said Wednesday they feel confident that the bill would incentivize states to raise teacher pay by creating more competition. States that are reluctant to apply for the grant would start to see their teachers leave for other states with higher pay and be more motivated to apply, they said.

Phelton Moss, center, talks about the American Teacher Act during a panel with Rodney Robinson, far left, Nicholas Feroni, center left, and Arne Duncan, far right, as part of an event supporting the bill on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, at the U.S. Capitol.

“It puts a lot of pressure on the governor if 30 or 40 other states are doing this, and it gives leverage to citizens saying, ‘If other states are doing this, what will happen?’” Duncan said. “The way we’ve structured [the bill] doesn’t guarantee success, but there’s a huge chance to have way more states participate than may meet the eye.”

Ultimately, students’ relationships with their teachers are a major factor in preventing dropouts, so supporting those teachers through better pay and more respect will lead to “a return on investment,” Duncan said.

“I used to say all the time that a great military is our best defense, but a great education system is our best offense,” he said. “Our country is in a very, very difficult, I would say, fragile, precarious place. Moments like this require a national response… and this bill, this legislation, will start to signal to everybody this is a national priority that our nation desperately needs and desperately deserves.”


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Classroom Technology Webinar
Academic Integrity in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
As AI writing tools rapidly evolve, learn how to set standards and expectations for your students on their use.
Content provided by Turnitin
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
The Science of Reading: Tools to Build Reading Proficiency
The Science of Reading has taken education by storm. Learn how Dr. Miranda Blount transformed literacy instruction in her state.
Content provided by hand2mind

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal A Chaotic Start to a New Congress: What Educators Need to Know
A new slate of lawmakers will have the chance to influence federal education policy in the 118th Congress.
4 min read
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., talks on the House floor after the first vote for House Speaker when he did not receive enough votes to be elected during opening day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol, Tuesday, Jan 3, 2023, in Washington.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., talks on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on Jan. 3 following the first round of voting for House Speaker. McCarthy fell short of enough votes to be elected speaker in three rounds of voting on opening day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol.
Andrew Harnik/AP
Federal Historic Changes to Title IX and School Safety Funding: How 2022 Shaped K-12 Policy
Federal lawmakers sought to make Title IX more inclusive, respond to school shootings, and crack down on corrupt charter schools.
6 min read
Revelers march down Fifth Avenue during the annual NYC Pride March, Sunday, June 26, 2022, in New York.
Revelers march down Fifth Avenue during New York City's annual Pride March in June. Proposed changes to Title IX would explicitly protect students from discrimination based on their gender identity or sexuality.
Mary Altaffer/AP
Federal What Education Issues Did Voters Care About Most? Hint: It Was Not Critical Race Theory
An NEA poll shows voters' education priorities in the midterm elections.
5 min read
People fill out ballots to vote at Benjamin Banneker Middle School during Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in Silver Spring, Md.
People fill out ballots to vote at Benjamin Banneker Middle School on Nov. 8 in Silver Spring, Md.
Jose Luis Magana/AP
Federal Teachers Would Make at Least $60K Under New Federal Bill
The American Teacher Act would create federal grants to incentivize states to raise the pay floor.
4 min read
Twin Cities teachers including MFT, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Local 59, and ESP, Education Support Professionals, rallied at the Minnesota State Capitol, Wednesday, March 9, 2022 St. Paul, Minn.
Minnesota teachers rally for higher wages at the state capital in St. Paul last spring.
Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via AP