Many people of all political stripes seem to agree that teachers are underpaid and underappreciated in America. During the 2020 Democratic primary, teacher pay even became an important campaign issue, with most of the field committing to the idea that the federal government should subsidize pay. 

It may be true that some teachers go underappreciated, but what do teachers actually make in the U.S., and is it fair compensation?

Everyone loves the party game/icebreaker “two truths and a lie.” Can you identify which of the following is NOT true about teacher pay?

A. Teachers aren’t being paid well because schools are underfunded.
B. Teachers make over $60,000 a year on average, before benefits and months off are taken into account.
C. Teacher union strikes over pay have left kids out of school.

Let’s take these statements one at a time:

A. False!

The U.S. is one of the top education spenders in the world, expending about $14,500 per pupil annually, and in many districts the numbers are far higher, with New York and D.C. edging into the $30,000 range. For comparison, the average private school tuition in the U.S. is only about $11,000, meaning taxpayers spend more on public schools than parents pay in tuition at private ones. 

Is that money going into teacher salaries? Well, to some extent, but more of it is going to non-classroom expenses. While teacher salaries have stagnated for several years, administrative and non-teaching staff have exploded. This report by economist Ben Scafidi shows that if bureaucratic growth had kept pace with the student population, states would be instantly able to offer teachers large raises, up to around $25,000, with the savings.

B. True!

Senator Bernie Sanders famously called for a $60,000 wage for teachers during the 2020 presidential campaign. The good news for Sanders (and teachers) is that teacher salaries already average higher than $60,000! In the 2019-20 school year, the average salary of a teacher in the United States was $63,523. In high-cost places, salaries run substantially higher. For example, a starting salary for a teacher in New York City ranges from about $58,000 to nearly $90,000.

Salary is also less reflective of total compensation for teachers than for some other professions since government employment typically comes with generous retirement benefits, and teaching specifically often comes with long breaks not typical in other fields.

C. True!

It’s hard to remember given the massive upheaval of the pandemic, but there were rounds of school closures in some states, like Arizona and West Virginia, over teacher pay all the way back in 2018 and 2019. These strikes left families with few options and little warning, and meant that students received fewer instructional days during those years.

While it’s true that teacher pay has stagnated in some districts and states, teaching is hardly a lowly-paid profession, especially when benefits and months off are taken into account.