The truth about teacher pay

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: the truth about teacher pay.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: You’re hearing West Virginia teachers at a rally demanding a pay raise.

They got it, and they weren’t the only ones who went on strike to win it. Teachers in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona went on strike, too.

They lobbied lawmakers on several education funding issues. But complaints about pay topped the list.

EICHER: In September, Time magazine ran a dramatic cover story with this headline: “I have a master’s degree, 16 years of experience, work two extra jobs, and donate blood plasma to pay the bills.”

REICHARD: That’s a dire situation for sure. But is it the norm? Are teachers really struggling to put food on the table? WORLD Radio News Editor Leigh Jones covers education for us, so she went to find out.

LEIGH JONES, NEWS EDITOR: Robin Beck began teaching elementary school students 29 years ago. And like many of her fellow educators, she has a second job.

BECK: I do have a side job. I have a cookie business out of my home and I’ve done it for about 10 years now and have built that up and it’s definitely been a help. And part of my income.

But she says it’s not an indispensable part. Beck began making custom-order cookies to help cover extra expenses when her teens started driving and eventually headed off to college. While the additional income helps, she never considered it necessary to pay the bills.

After nearly three decades in Texas schools, Beck makes $64,000 a year. That’s only slightly higher than the national average for teachers—$59,000.

Rick Hess is an education policy analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. He says most people are surprised to find out how much teachers actually make.

HESS: Most people would think of $59,000 a year on average as a solid middle class salary, especially given teachers have more generous than usual healthcare and retirement benefits.

Those perks rarely get mentioned in stories about teacher pay. But they make up a significant part of an educator’s compensation.

HESS: Teachers are functionally having their employer contribute about 8, 10 percent of their salary a year into a retirement plan on their behalf. If you were working in another job without that pension plan, you would need to make 10 percent more money and then put that into a plan to have the same impact.

Another perk? Teachers only work about 190 days per year, while most professionals work closer to 240 days. That time off gives them time to work second jobs. And it translates into a financial benefit for teachers with school-aged children because they don’t have to pay for childcare after school, during the summer, and on holidays.

BECK: To me, teaching is the best of both worlds. It’s a full-time job with a good salary, and I can also also have the luxury of being a stay-at-home mom when my kids are home, because for the most part, if they were home it allowed me to be home.

Beck always felt like she made enough money. But she says she has benefits other teachers might not. For example, she’s married and her husband also has a good job.

BECK: If you’re a sole income and have kids, then that makes it harder, you know. But that’s that way for any job.

Beck also lives in a rural community in southeast Texas with a lower cost of living than some other parts of the country. And teachers in Texas do make more than educators in other places.

HESS: A bunch of the states with teacher strikes, like Oklahoma and West Virginia, where average teacher pay is in the 40s or low 50s. And I think arguably that is not enough money for somebody who’s doing responsible, professional work.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans with bachelor’s degrees earned an average of about $66,000 a year in 2017. At $59,000 a year, the national average for teachers sits just below the current median household income, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But as one-half of a dual-income household, a teacher’s salary is significant.

So, are financial struggles the norm for teachers? It all depends on where they teach and their personal circumstances. And that’s true of any job.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Leigh Jones.

(Associated Press/Photo by Ross D. Franklin) Teacher Cindy Cordts with students after an Arizona teacher strike ended.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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