Public schools

The (Partial) Myth of the Poorly Paid Public School Teacher

In the popular imagination, teachers are compensated terribly. What about in the real world?


Over the past few weeks, headlines have abounded about a national teacher shortage. Rebecca Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers union, claims the country is short nearly 300,000 teachers and support staff. Gallup pollsters report that four in 10 teachers say they're "always" or "very often" burned out. Because of this, outlets like Fortune declare, "the teacher shortage is about to intensify." 

Many argue that low teacher pay is a big part of the problem. Striking teachers in Seattle just delayed the start of the school year by a full week, demanding laptops for teaching assistants, higher teacher-to-student ratios in special ed and multilingual classes, and (of course) higher pay, purportedly to keep up with inflation. But the idea that teachers are poorly paid predates both the pandemic and the recent inflation surge:

  • CNBC declared in 2020 that teachers "are paid less than a living wage in the U.S."
  • "Think teachers aren't paid enough?" reads a Washington Post headline from 2016. "It's worse than you think."
  • "Teachers make about 20% less than other professionals with similar education and experience," reported CNBC.

Such stories echo a common progressive talking point—what the Economic Policy Institute calls the "teacher pay penalty." Teachers, the institute argued in 2020, "are paid less (in wages and compensation) than other college-educated workers with similar experience and other characteristics, and this financial penalty discourages college students from entering the teaching profession and makes it difficult for school districts to keep current teachers in the classroom."

What such arguments don't mention is that the other factors that sweeten the deal for public school teachers. Depending on number of years served, and a state's specific system, they often benefit from generous pensions. They have shorter weeks and a portion of the summers off, giving them shorter overall hours than most other professions. They also have extreme job security: It is very hard to fire them, even for low or stagnant performance.

"Are teachers overpaid or underpaid?" asks Matthew Yglesias at Slow Boring, correctly arguing:

You often see the trope that American teachers are working in conditions of dire poverty. Part of the setup of "Breaking Bad" was the idea that as a high school chemistry teacher, Walter White was so poorly compensated that he worked part-time at a car wash in order to make ends meet and also couldn't afford cancer treatment. There is a lot of spatial variation in teacher compensation, and it is a documented fact that some teachers have to work second jobs, but on the whole, teachers are not mired in poverty.

The story that's harder to distill into headlines and talking points is one of extreme variation in benefits and pay by state.

Researchers at the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes this website) have found that a teacher's average salary and average pension following 30 years of service vary significantly by state. The full-time Seattle public school teacher's average annual salary is $88,897; after logging 30 years of service, employees can expect to receive $66,673 each year of retirement. (Teachers contributed 8.64 percent annually to that pension, while their employers contributed about twice that.) For teachers in New York state, the average salary is $87,738. After 30 years of service, a career employee there would receive annual payouts of $49,353. Many blue states tend to be generous with teacher pay and pensions (though it's worth noting that many teachers quit before their pensions have vested, and you have to log many years within the same state in order to qualify for full pension benefits).

In red states, it's a different story. Reason Foundation researchers found that the average salary of a full-time teacher in Texas is $57,641; a Texan teacher's pension benefits after 30 years of service would be $49,715 annually. In Mississippi (widely reported as one of the worst states for teacher pay), average salary is $47,655; pension payouts for career employees amount to about $35,741 annually. (Texas, it's worth noting, is one of the states that denies the majority of its teachers Social Security benefits, whereas all the other states listed—and 35 states total—allow public school teachers to collect both pensions and Social Security benefits in old age.)

This regional variation also explains the alleged teacher shortage you've been hearing so much about. There's actually not an across-the-board, national shortage, though there are some states (Arizona and Florida, for example) and some specialty areas (bus drivers, cafeteria workers, special ed teachers) that have indeed been struggling with understaffing. Over the last few decades, class sizes have decreased, more kids have been identified as needing special education, and more school support staffers have been hired. Problems hiring an adequate number of sufficiently qualified teachers have been going on for some time, so to frame it as a problem unique to this year misses the mark, but makes for a convenient narrative when packaged with teacher burnout statistics.

There are a lot of K-12 teaching jobs out there. Some 3 to 4 million Americans are teachers—and if you include pre-K, special ed, and college instructors, that number rises to about 6.1 million, or 2 percent of the U.S. population. Working for the public schools probably won't make you rich (aside from a few administrators). But being a schoolteacher practically guarantees that you won't be fired (and that you will be hired), and it is extremely transferable across geographic areas (though you might have to forfeit a pension). You need a bachelor's degree, but there's no fine-toothed combing through a résumé to make sure it was a good bachelor's degree, from a competitive school, or in a relevant subject area. Your workplace won't get acquired, be forced through a merger, or end up going under. You're insulated from recessions and economic downturns. You won't, sadly, get stock options (but you do have to wait for your pension to vest).

The real downside is that top performers rarely get rewarded based on merit. In public schools, pay scales operate based on formulas of educational attainment and years served, with no eye toward efficacy and competence. For top performers who take their jobs seriously, this is surely discouraging. But if want to coast, it's a pretty good deal.

So it's not that teachers are overpaid or underpaid, that their pension benefits are across-the-board generous, or that it's all such a raw deal that they're fleeing in droves. The truth is somewhere in between, and many industry-wide problems stem from severing incentives from pay and funding. School districts full of failing schools, with declining enrollment numbers, frequently manage to nab more money from government coffers; aggressive campaigns are launched to hinder rollouts of school voucher programs, the creation of charter schools, or other possible sources of competition. We'd be wise to assess the industry more candidly, even if scores of headlines suggest it's apostasy to do so.