Is Congress going to raise teachers' salaries to $60K?

Lawmakers agree the issue deserves attention but differ on getting involved.

March 15, 2023, 5:02 AM

There's a growing list of politicians, conservatives and liberals alike, who back raising teacher pay.

But while members in both chambers of Congress, multiple governors and President Joe Biden all agree that the issue deserves attention, amid high inflation and an ongoing shortage of instructors, they disagree on whether it needs the federal government to offer a solution -- and if so, how.

Nationally, teachers' median pay was about $61,000 in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, meaning half of teachers made less than that and half made more.

Compensation can vary widely: California, Massachusetts and New York's average teacher wages top $85,000 annually, labor statistics show, while Oklahoma and Mississippi on average pay teachers less than $50,000.

Last week, Arkansas' Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed into law the LEARNS Act, a sweeping package which, among many other changes, increases the minimum salary for public and charter school teachers in her state from $36,000 to $50,000.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to go further. On Thursday, he introduced the Pay Teachers Act which, like a similar legislative proposal in the House, would raise public school teacher salaries nationwide to $60,000 or higher.

"There is a major teacher crisis in America and we need to significantly attract more people into the teaching profession," Sanders, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), told ABC News. "Probably the easiest -- the fastest -- way to do that is by raising the minimum salary to at least $60,000," he said.

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., who sits on the HELP committee with Sanders, said he supports the premise behind the bill but would like it to be tied to performance. Braun said a larger overhaul of the system may attract more educators.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks, Jan. 10, 2023, in Little Rock, Ark.
Will Newton/AP, FILE

"I think we need to invest more in our school teachers," Braun said in the wake of Sanders' legislation.

"I'm not sure I'd take that approach. I think, in general, teacher pay obviously is going to have to be raised," Braun said. "And to me it would be done through some type of performance measurement in general and inject choice and competition into the process. It might be an easier place for teachers to build a career if it was kind of restructured, you know, in other ways other than just throwing more money at it."

The Pay Teachers Act is one of two recent proposals focused on instructors' salaries.

Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson, a career educator, introduced the American Teacher Act last month with Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., a former principal. Their bill would incentivize states to raise minimum salaries to $60,000 for public K-12 teachers, through a grant program at the U.S. Department of Education, as well as mandate yearly increases congruent to inflation.

Representative Frederica Wilson speaks during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Feb. 5, 2020.
Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

Wilson previously told ABC News that she sees her target number as the most achievable goal despite some educators supporting higher base pay.

Citing some of the same concerns as Sanders did, Wilson said in December, "We can choose to take this issue head on or lose America's teachers and have the education of our students severely impacted."

Under Wilson and Bowman's bill, states would need to opt-in to the federally funded short-term grants. Sanders called for the money to come from tripling funding for high-need or low-income public schools, as designated under Title I.

It's unclear how quickly either bill may be taken up by committees, if at all.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Education Department has called for COVID-19 pandemic relief money from the federal government to be used to bump up teacher pay in the short term while also urging state-level action.

"Secretary [Miguel] Cardona has vocally said that states and schools can use American Rescue Plan funds to lift up the salaries of teachers," a department spokesperson said, adding, "He also made sure to call on governors and state legislatures to match the urgency of the president to [use] the same amount of funding because the ARP money is temporary, so now it's about long-term investments to make sure teacher salaries are lifted up."

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the Rhythm City Casino Resort in Davenport, Iowa, March 10, 2023.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Whether there's a majority in the currently divided Congress to pass either Sanders' or Wilson and Bowman's bill -- or any push to increase teacher pay nationally -- remains unknown. Other Republicans and Democrats disagree with how this issue should be handled and said they're wary of Congress stepping in.

"There are constitutional questions, but there are also logical questions about it," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said. "I think everyone would love for teachers to make more, but teachers don't work for the federal government, so they should talk to their school boards and state legislatures."

The House's Education and the Workforce Committee chairwoman, Rep. Virginia Foxx, advocated for increased teacher pay when she was in the North Carolina state legislature. Congress, however, shouldn't force a national policy where the states would know better, she said.

"Imposing a one-size-fits-all plan at the federal level to K-12 education across the country will not improve schools or set students on the path to success," Foxx, R-N.C., said.

Both Arkansas and Florida have recently approved major bumps to teacher pay at the state level. Last year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, backed a budget that boosted salaries to a $47,000 minimum.

In January, DeSantis proposed investing $1 billion to raise teacher salaries again.

Senator Bernie Sanders holds a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 7, 2023.
Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters, FILE

Education finance expert Jess Gartner said teachers are categorically underpaid -- they should make at least 20% more than they do, on average -- but she also said that in her view the recent congressional proposals are not rooted in economic reality.

"This [$60,0000] is just a number," Gartner said. "What is it based in? Where did that number come from? Is it high enough? Is it too high? I do not like policies like that because I think they sound great in headlines but in practice, it's chaos."

Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, last week pushed back on conservative lawmakers' criticism.

"They're wrong," he said. "Congress has got to work with the state. Certainly states have an enormous responsibility, but states are going to need financial support. That's going to significantly come from the federal government."

A US Capitol Police officer stands at the steps to the House of Representative outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, Jan. 4, 2023.
Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of University of California at Berkeley's Law School, said he believes Sanders and Wilson are well-within their constitutional authority to tie salary requirements to federal funding.

Teachers have told ABC News that strict time demands coupled with persistent student behavioral issues and lack of administrative support have made the profession undesirable without some pay incentive.

Even with incremental salary increases, some teachers said their raises have been inadequate due to the pressures from inflation.

"We have the worst compensation plan in any major industry in America," said Eric Hale, the compensation committee lead within Texas' teacher vacancy task force. "That's a tough sell for a savvy student who can go into any other industry and look at making twice, three times as much as a teacher, right? So we got to fix that."