A few days ago, a bill was introduced by Congresswoman Frederica S. Wilson and Congressman Jamaal Bowman called the American Teacher Act. If passed, it would ensure that all teachers in the U.S. would make at least $60,000. I hope you will lend it your support in any way you can.
Congresswoman Wilson is a courageous warrior who signed on to lead this push, and Congressman Bowman deserves high praise for co-sponsoring the bill. The bill is the result of well over a decade of work by Ellen Sherratt and my old friend Ninive Calegari, who through the nonprofit Teacher Salary Project have relentlessly pushed for higher teacher pay as a means to attract great people to the profession, and to keep great teachers teaching.
The United States has one of the highest teacher turnover ratios in the industrialized world. Almost 50% of teachers leave before their fifth year teaching—an astonishing statistic. This turnover means that schools constantly lose great educators, especially in the schools with the highest need. In any company, any government office—any endeavor of any kind—this kind of turnover would be seen as utterly untenable. The institutional knowledge base goes out the window. Any kind of stability or momentum is impossible.
But we’ve allowed this chaos in the US education system, in large part because politicians, district officials, state administrators and voters as a whole have determined that among all of society’s pillars—city planners, firefighters, sanitation workers, water-safety officials, on and on—that among them all, teachers should be paid the least. It beggars belief.
When we started 826 Valencia, back in 2002, each month, we gave a cash award to a great Bay Area teacher. The teachers were nominated by students and parents and peers, and we granted them $1500 that we begged them to spend on themselves (knowing many would spend the money on their classrooms). Of all of those Teachers of the Month, only a few are still in the profession. Most simply couldn’t afford to live and teach in a city as expensive as San Francisco. So they left.
At the moment, nationally there’s a grave teacher shortage, with 45% of schools trying to fill vacancies. The average starting salary for a teacher in 2020-2021 was $41,770. When adjusted for inflation, this represented a 4% decrease from 2019-2020. So while the cost of living is growing for everyone, teachers are effectively being paid less each year. This is embarrassing.
But the American Teacher Act can address this.
It was just introduced this week, so there is much work to be done. Write or call your congressperson or senator. In particular, reach out to Senator Cory Booker, who has been interested in helping the bill advance in the Senate, and Representative Virginia Foxx, who is the gatekeeper Republican in the House; both would benefit from your encouragement. Spread the word, sound the alarm, and let’s get this done in 2023.
And for a cinematic illustration of the effects of inadequate teacher pay, watch American Teacher, our documentary from 2011. Narrated by Matt Damon, it’s a beautiful documentary directed by Vanessa Roth and Brian McGinn, co-produced by Ninive and me. For better or worse, the movie holds up more than a decade later. Not a thing about teachers’ lives have changed; if anything, they’ve gotten harder.
But we really have a shot in 2023 to make things better. This opportunity feels real. Please spread the word.