The US is spending more on pupils, but teachers need a raise

The US spent more than $12,000 per student on public education in 2017, report says. Teacher pay, however, lags behind.

    Teachers’ wages have remained flat while those of other college-educated workers have continued to rise, found an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, which noted that teachers were being paid an average of $582 less per week than other college graduates in 2018 [Rick Wilking/ Reuters]
    Teachers’ wages have remained flat while those of other college-educated workers have continued to rise, found an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, which noted that teachers were being paid an average of $582 less per week than other college graduates in 2018 [Rick Wilking/ Reuters]

    Melissa Gustray, 28, has worked as a public school teacher for six years. She has a master's degree in educational technology and has earned three teaching certificates. But to afford to live near the school where she teaches in northern New Jersey, she has to have at least one roommate - and two other jobs.

    "I work two part-time jobs, in addition to teaching full time [and] working 14-hour days multiple times a week and also on the weekends," Gustray told Al Jazeera. "I'm not the only one. All of my coworkers have at least another part-time job. I have friends who tutor six hours a day after school to keep a competitive income. It still doesn't add up to my friends working in other industries with less education."

    New Jersey spent $18,920 per pupil for public elementary and secondary education in 2017, the fourth-highest expenditure in the United States, according to new data published this week by the US Census Bureau. Meanwhile, public school spending per pupil rose by 3.7 percent nationwide. The 2017 spending bump was partly due to an overall increase in public education revenue across all 50 states and Washington, DC, the data shows. Education revenue from all sources increased by 3.4 percent to a total of $694.1bn.

    But the US is still "in catch-up mode" when it comes to spending on education after the 2008 financial crisis, and teachers' wages still lag far behind those of other college graduates, said Linda Darling-Hammond, the president and CEO of the nonpartisan Learning Policy Institute and a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University.

    "There was a decrease in per-pupil spending after the recession," Darling-Hammond told Al Jazeera, adding that some states only recently got back to 2007 spending levels. "We haven't caught up yet: we're in that process, and some states are in better shape than others. But there is still quite a ways to go."

    Despite the increase in spending per pupil nationwide, teachers' wages have remained flat while those of other college-educated workers have continued to rise, an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute found. That report noted that teachers were being paid an average of $582 less per week than other college graduates in 2018. And some school districts, like the one where Gustray works, don't pay teachers during summer break, leaving many of them feeling the pinch.

    "I'm working three jobs over the summer just to try and stay afloat with my bills," Gustray said. "Forget summer vacations. I am on a budget all year, but once summer hits and I realize I won't get another salary cheque until September 15, I put myself on a really strict budget. No more eating out, or picking up coffee from the coffee shop. No throwing away leftovers or buying new clothes."

    The disparity between what teachers and other college-educated professionals earn is one reason why the US has been rocked by teacher protests in recent years. It's why educators have gone on strike to demand better pay, more benefits and smaller class sizes in Los Angeles, Denver and Oakland, as well as in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, North Carolina and Kentucky, among other places.

    Money matters when it comes to the quality of education students receive and how they do after graduation, a Learning Policy Institute brief found. The brief notes that state and local wealth and income combine with state and local fiscal efforts to generate revenue for schools, which then use that revenue to balance staffing quantities (class sizes and student-to-teacher ratios) with staffing quality (offering teachers a competitive wage). And while resources like "smaller class sizes, additional instructional supports, early childhood programs, and more competitive teacher compensation" cost more, they are also "positively associated with student outcomes".

    That link - between more funding and better outcomes - is especially strong for children from low-income families, reported a 2015 study by researchers at Northwestern University's Institute for Policy Research. "Although we find small effects for children from affluent families, for low-income children, a 10 percent increase in per pupil spending each year for all 12 years of public school is associated with 0.46 additional years of completed education, 9.6 percent higher earnings, and a 6.1 percentage point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty," researchers found.

    But how much money public schools have varies state by state - and district by district. The US constitution stipulates that funding public schools from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade falls to the states. But the federal government sometimes supplements that funding, according to the US Department of Education. New Mexico, Mississippi, Alaska, Arizona and South Dakota received the highest percentage of their school revenues from the federal government in 2017, according to the Census Bureau report, while New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Minnesota and New York received the lowest percentages.

    Regional disparities mean the largest school districts with the highest amounts spent per pupil in 2017 were all concentrated along the East Coast in or near major cities, according to Census Bureau data. New York City spent $25,199 per pupil; Boston spent $22,292, Baltimore $16,184, and the Howard County School District in Maryland spent $15,921. But those are also some of the most expensive parts of the country for teachers to live in.

    The median household income in Bergen County, where Gustray teaches, is $91,572, according to Census Bureau figures. But Gustray said she earns less than $55,000 as a health and physical education teacher. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, where the median gross rent is $1,419 per month, according to Census data.

    "Living in Hoboken with my current three jobs is only feasible with roommates. I've lived here for a few years now, and could never afford a place on my own," she said. "When I first moved to Hoboken, I had three other roommates and lived in a very small room. Now, a few years later, I have finally been able to downsize to only one other roommate. It's still not ideal, but it was my only option."

    So why isn't more of what public schools spend going to pay teachers? There are a number of factors, but part of it has to do with the fact that the US does not have a national healthcare system or other social safety net benefits, leaving public schools "picking up the tab," Darling-Hammond said.

    "We're paying a lot of money in the US to take care of kids who live in poverty," she said, citing high levels of family homelessness, high levels of children without access to healthcare and high levels of food insecurity as some of the factors with which schools must deal. "Our schools take on the cost of that. They provide meals, [and] they provide a lot of services for kids who are experiencing these types of things."

    Gustray agrees, explaining that she is not only tasked with teaching her students the content of the curriculum, but is "also challenged with students' wellbeing." And that can be difficult when her own wellbeing depends on working multiple jobs and living on such a tight budget.

    "Teaching is a high-stress job. Sure, there are benefits like most jobs, but when it comes down to it, dealing with children is different every single day," Gustray said. "The state expects so much of teachers, but isn't willing to pay us. It's hard for me to look at my salary guide and know what I'll be making in 10 years and wonder how I'm ever going to be able to support a future family. I'll be working multiple jobs for the rest of my time."