Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
While the public employee walkouts started with West Virginia, many other U.S. states pay teachers far less than other college-educated professionals—often much less.
For years, West Virginia public employees watched their wages stagnate and insurance premiums rise. So, in February, they staged a walkout to fight for—and win—a 5 percent pay increase. Those efforts inspired teachers in other states to follow suit: Kentucky teachers are threatening a walk-out this month if their pensions are cut; in Arizona, teachers are rallying for a 20 percent wage increase. And in Oklahoma, teachers are now entering their second week of closed schools. On Monday, some walked 15 miles to the state capitol building to demand $150 million more in funding and a 10 percent wage increase.
But it’s not just that these teachers are underpaid—it’s that they make much less than college-educated peers working in other professions across the country. And that gap persists nationwide. “There is no state where teacher wages are equal to or better than those of other college graduates,” a report by economist Sylvia Allegretto from the Economic Policy Institute reveals.
But teachers in some states are burdened with far wider gaps than those in others.
The average weekly pay for college-educated workers in the U.S. is $1,428; the average teacher makes only 77 percent of that, or 77 cents to every dollar. In West Virginia, salaries are slightly lower than average: Teachers are paid 75 cents to every dollar earned by other college graduates. Among the other states where unions are actively rallying, Arizona’s gap is widest, at 63 cents; Oklahoma’s trails close behind, at 67; and Kentucky’s is barely above the national average, at 79.
The places with the widest pay gaps also pay some of the lowest raw salaries. Teachers in those four states are making between $40,000 and $50,000 each year; compare that to teachers in New York, California, and Massachusetts, who make an average of above $70,000, according to EPI figures and a study released by the National Education Association.
The interactive map below, created by ESRI and CityLab using EPI’s data, shows the relative size of the gaps nationwide—and might provide some clues as to which states might be next to follow West Virginia’s lead.
As the map indicates, while West Virginia teachers were the first to walk out, there’s a spray of other states that are even worse off, many in the South. Colorado and North Carolina’s gap of .65 rivals Arizona’s. There, teachers are paid an average of $49,244 and $43,472 a year, respectively. (Indeed, Denver teachers threatened to strike in March over the city’s “pay-for-performance” system, but the union agreed to wait to renegotiate in January 2019.) Virginia, New Mexico, and Missouri’s wages are close behind.
This all matters, says Allegretto, because it means the opportunity cost of becoming a teacher is reaching a critical tipping point. “We have to think about students that are in college now that are trying to determine what profession they’re going to go into,” she said. “They have to question whether it’s going to be teaching—are the best and the brightest going to continue to go into teaching with this scenario?”
Indeed, teacher shortages are growing in many states, as college-educated graduates are saddled with more student loans and debt; the cost of education rises; and teacher salaries are decreasing. Many teachers in high-cost cities like San Francisco and New York City are struggling to afford housing close to the schools where they work: In Miami, as Governing’s Natalie Delgadillo reports, Miami lawmakers have proposed building on-campus housing for the faculty (a solution that teachers are less than enthused about).
But even as teachers lobby their states for better wages—West Virginia for a 5 percent raise and hoping for more; Oklahoma for 10; Arizona for 20—it will be hard to make up so much lost income, says Allegretto. As this interactive chart from EPI shows, the gap is growing everywhere, up from a .1 percent discrepancy in 1994 to 11 percent in 2015. Accounting for inflation, that means teacher pay actually fell $30 per week over the last two decades, while professionals in other jobs make $124 more than they once did.
“In West Virginia the increases they got weren’t really increases—they were to make up for lost ground,” said Allegretto. “If you don't get a pay increase in 10 years and inflation is running even at a modest two percent per year, that’s a 20 percent pay cut.”
In many of the states where frustration turned to action, salary stagnation was coupled with pension cuts and raised insurance premiums. To West Virginia organizers, for example, the wage increase was secondary to a desire for reforming the state’s Public Employees Insurance Agency. “[PEIA is] money that has to be put in the state budget every year, and they’ve just not been putting any extra money in,” said Jay O’Neil, a middle school teacher from Kanawha County and a leader of the West Virginia movement. “So on top of our salaries not increasing, really, that was a pay cut we were taking.”
In Kentucky, where the pay gap is far less acute, teachers are just fighting to hold on to what they now have, organizer Nema Brewer told CityLab last month: They’ve already stalled a state Senate bill that would have shrunk their pensions, but teachers and public employees say they will walk out if it rears its head again. And in Oklahoma, along with a wage increase, they’re fighting for increased funding for dilapidated buildings and school resources.
“The discrepancies in the underfunding and the defunding have gone on too long, and it’s showing up,” said Allegretto. That’s why now, teachers are starting to show up, too.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Economic Policy Institute.