Third-grade teacher Cindy Cordts shares a laugh with her class at Oakwood Elementary School in Peoria, Arizona. The state's teachers won a pay raise in May after a six-day walkout.
Third-grade teacher Cindy Cordts shares a laugh with her class at Oakwood Elementary School in Peoria, Arizona. The state's teachers won a pay raise in May after a six-day walkout. Ross D. Franklin/AP

It’s not just that paychecks are shrinking. It’s that the advantages teachers once had are reversing.

Are teachers in the U.S. paid enough? It sure doesn’t look that way: They’re crowdfunding and panhandling to fund school supplies, going on strike in state after state, and leaving the profession entirely (not one state had enough teachers to serve all its students at the start of the 2017-2018 school year).

But critics of efforts to boost teacher wages often point out that educators enjoy benefits that should balance out their lower take-home pay. Teachers, after all, enjoy hefty retirement plans, health and life insurance, and payroll taxes. (And they take three months off each summer!)

But according to a new report from the Economic Policy Institute, teacher pay is indeed lower than ever, and boosted benefits aren’t enough to balance out ebbing salaries. In many cases, stable or slightly improved benefits are being offered instead of raises—“making benefits a larger share of the overall compensation package for teachers than for other professionals,” the report reads, but in the process driving down wages even more.

While this is the first brief that includes 2017 figures, EPI has done this analysis before. And many of the trends that have persisted since the 1990’s have continued: Since 1996, teachers’ wages, adjusted for inflation, have decreased $27, while other college graduates got a pay bump of more than $100. That has fueled a widening “wage gap” between public-sector teachers and their other college educated peers—now a penalty of 18.7 percent.

It’s not just that wages are shrinking. It’s that the advantages teachers once had are reversing. In the 1960s, women made 14.7 percent more as teachers than other female workers; now, they’re making 15.6 percent less. Part of this is because women are occupying a greater share of the workforce than they did in 1960, and in more high-paying positions. But men, too, experience a large wage penalty when they work in the classroom: In 2017, they were making 26.8 percent less as public school teachers than other male workers. (Again, though, men in all professions are making more than they used to, and way more than women.)

Taken together, these losses are only slightly offset by the monetary advantage teachers get in the form of non-wage benefits, EPI says. Let’s do some math: An 18.7 percent wage penalty is being mitigated by a 7.6 percent benefit advantage, handing teachers an 11.1 percent compensation penalty for choosing their profession. (And in some states, benefits are being cut, not expanded: West Virginia’s strike was sparked by anger over what teachers saw as a consistently underfunded public employee insurance pool.) While health care may be crucial, you can’t eat benefits. Little wonder that so many teachers spend their summers working.

“This growing compensation penalty is a key part of the story of changing teacher pay but shouldn’t obscure the importance of the wage penalty alone,” reads the report. “[O]nly wages can be saved or spent on housing and food and other critical expenses.”

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