State average teacher salaries ranged from those
in New York ($79,152), California ($77,179), and
Massachusetts ($76,981) at the high end to South
Dakota ($42,025) and Mississippi ($42,744) at the low
A 2014 study by the Center for American Progress
found that in Oklahoma, teachers with 15 years of
experience and a master’s degree earn less than
sheet metal workers, while in Georgia those with the
same credentials and experience earn less than a
flight attendant in the state. Colorado teachers with a
graduate degree and 10 years of experience earn less
than a trucker in the state.
According to NEA, Colorado ranked 49th among states
in 2015, paying teachers an average annual salary
of $44,421. In 2016, the state moved to 46 in the
“Earning what I do with a master’s degree is downright
offensive, especially when the cost of living is so high in
this area,” says Degerness, a member of the Jefferson
County Education Association. “Fortunately, I was able
to earn a few grants for graduate school and work part
time at the office.”
Monthly, Degerness pays $800 in rent, $400 in truck
payments, $200 for auto insurance, and $400 toward
her student loan. Her take home pay: About $2,000.
“Throw in gas, food, or anything fun and it’s pretty much
gone right there,” she says. “I’m in survivor mode.”
In addition, her health plan calls for a 20 to 80 percent
co-payment with a $3,000 deductible, which increases
her monthly expenses for prescriptions and medical
Strong Unions Improve Schools
“This erosion of relative teacher wages has fallen more
heavily on experienced teachers than on entry-level
teachers,” says Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist at
the University of California, Berkley, and a co-author of
the EPI report.
There are likely many reasons for the increasing pay
gap, she says.
“The weakening of teachers’ unions, pervasive antigovernment
sentiment, defunding of public education
and the spread of charter and private schools all play
a role,” Allegretto says. “An effective teacher is the
most important school-based determinant of education
outcomes. It is therefore crucial that school districts
recruit and retain high-quality teachers.”
But this is difficult at a time when the supply of teachers
is constrained by high turnover rates, annual retirements
of longtime teachers, and a decline in college students
opting for a teaching career. Providing adequate wages
and benefits is crucial to attracting and keeping qualified
teachers, according to the report.
“Collective bargaining is the antidote to the teacher pay
penalty,” says Lawrence Mishel, EPI president and coauthor
of the report. “But it’s not enough.
Even unionized teachers have seen their pay erode
relative to other workers.”
EPI is a nonprofit think tank based in the District of
Columbia that works to include low- and middleincome
workers in economic policy discussions among
legislators, academicians, journalists, and others.
The organization has conducted numerous studies on
teacher pay gaps. Allegretto says collective bargaining
agreements help to set teacher pay and benefits
at levels that help educators maintain decent living
“Even as the relative public school teacher pay gap is
widening, unionized teachers do better than teachers
without collective bargaining,” she says.
Education unions also influence other workplace issues
such as breaks, bus duties, or if teachers eat lunch with
and while monitoring students.
“Strong unions, otherwise, increase job quality,” she
adds. “This helps to make teaching a more attractive
Contrary to one grave misperception about education
unions, they do not unfairly protect “bad apples.”
In “The Myth of Unions’ Overprotection of Bad
Teachers,” author Eunice S. Han says school districts
with strong unions do a better job of weeding out bad
teachers and retaining good ones than districts with
The dilemma rests with district officials who may want
to pay higher wages to attract good teachers but must
contend with ever-tightening state budgets.
“If you have elected officials who are dedicated to
shrinking government budgets, then it is difficult to
raise wages for not only teachers but all public service
workers,” says Mishel.
Teachers in Some Cities May Need a
Second Job to Afford a House
Across the country, housing prices in many cities are
rising, while teacher salaries are not. To gauge what
percentage of available homes teachers could afford,
Redfin, a real estate brokerage firm, compared listed
home prices over the last five years in more than 30
cities with average teachers’ salaries. The number
of homes within reach for an unmarried teacher has
declined in some areas by more than 25 percent since
“Teachers don’t go into their field to get rich,” says
Mishel, who has co-authored “The State of Working
America,” now in its 12th edition.
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