This story was originally published by Education NC on Dec. 14. Story by Alessandra Quattrocchi

The American Teacher Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on Dec. 14, presenting an opportunity to revitalize teacher pay nationwide.

The legislation, drafted by the nonprofit Teacher Salary Project and U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Florida, comes in response to nationwide teacher shortages and low teacher morale that have made headlines this year.

If passed, the American Teacher Act would create a four-year federal grant program to be used to increase teachers’ annual salaries to a minimum of $60,000 nationwide.

The argument for the American Teacher Act

The news of a teacher shortage crisis made national headlines this year, spurring panic at the start of this school year. As EdNC reported during that time, the term “crisis” may have been causing more harm than good, as national news outlets published dooming articles without accounting for nuances in statewide teacher supply trends. 

However, there is no denying the increasing vacancies in schools across the country, and the problems they pose. In September, EducationWeek estimated that there were more than 36,500 teacher vacancies across the country and more than 163,500 positions being filled by uncredentialed teachers. In North Carolina, vacancies in the fall of 2022 were up 2,309 from the fall of 2021, totaling 9,677. 

Screenshot from N.C. School Superintendents’ Association.

Ellen Sherratt, board president of the Teacher Salary Project, offered further insights into the state of teacher vacancies in North Carolina.

“Forty days into the school year, every district in North Carolina except for four of them still had unfilled vacancies,” she said.

This turmoil comes in the midst of a nationwide struggle to recover from pandemic learning losses, which have resulted in declines in both reading and math scores from 2020 to 2022 for 9-year-old students

Screenshot of NAEP Long-Term Trend Assessment Results: Reading and Mathematics.

These significant declines in student performance demonstrate the increased need for qualified and committed teachers in our nation’s classrooms to help students recover from the effects of the pandemic. However, a recent poll by the EdWeek Research Center revealed that teacher job satisfaction is at an all-time-low. 

In North Carolina, the percentage of teachers who plan to leave their jobs has risen from 4 percent in 2020 to 7.22 percent in 2022. Teachers cite being overworked and underpaid as primary reasons why they are becoming disillusioned with their careers.

What does the American Teacher Act entail?

Given that 74 percent of teachers polled do not believe they receive fair compensation for their work, finding ways to increase teacher pay nationally has been a commonly discussed solution at the Teacher Salary Project. But Sherratt explained the difficulties behind popularizing this policy.

“How do we get (teacher pay increases) to happen when people who are in the position to make change are so scared or intimidated by the price tag and by the controversial topics associated with higher pay, like performance-based pay and increases in taxes?” she asked.

The American Teacher Act would create a four-year federal grant available to states and local educational agencies that would guarantee a minimum salary of $60,000 for all teachers.

See the current draft of the bill below.

Importantly, this legislation would not decrease salaries for those already earning above this limit, nor would it replace existing federal, state, or local funds used toward teacher salaries. The annual salary would be adjusted for inflation, and would also be adjusted to pay part-time teachers an amount proportional to their workload.

She explained that the $60,000 figure was informed by states across the country that have already taken initiative to increase teacher pay to at or around that amount.

“We thought it was a number the country could galvanize around,” Sherratt said. 

However, she understands that given the discrepancies in the cost of living across the country, this figure may not suffice for some. To account for these differences, the legislation also outlines a provision to assist with state efforts to offer teachers competitive wages that are proportional to the state’s cost of living.

The American Teacher Act would also launch a national campaign to garner support for the value of teaching, hoping to inspire others to join the profession.

Teacher pay reform in North Carolina

For current and future teachers in North Carolina, this legislation could make a world of difference. Syna Sharma, currently a student at North Carolina State University and a John M. Belk Impact Fellow, is an aspiring educator who said that the starting salary for first-year teachers in the state has been weighing on her. 

“I just had to think about how I really care about the future generation and making sure that kids are supported and we have a better world in the future,” she said, regarding her decision to become an educator. “But, I also need to be realistic and think about how I’m going to live.”

For more than a year, the Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Committee (PEPSC) have been attempting to address these concerns through teacher licensure and pay reform.

Most recently, EdNC reported that pilots of a new plan for teacher licensure and pay could come as soon as the next school year. The plan would dramatically increase teacher salary, which Superintendent Catherine Truitt hopes would be included in the implementation of any upcoming pilot programs.

Ultimately, Sherratt said increased pay is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but it’s a good starting point to fill positions at a crucial time for learning.

“We know that teacher salaries are only part of the solution,” said Sherratt, “but they’re kind of the elephant in the room when issues of teacher shortages are being discussed. … We know that many other countries have addressed their shortages and we can too, we just need the political will.”

Join the First Amendment Society, a membership that goes directly to funding TCB‘s newsroom.

We believe that reporting can save the world.

The TCB First Amendment Society recognizes the vital role of a free, unfettered press with a bundling of local experiences designed to build community, and unique engagements with our newsroom that will help you understand, and shape, local journalism’s critical role in uplifting the people in our cities.

All revenue goes directly into the newsroom as reporters’ salaries and freelance commissions.

⚡ Join The Society ⚡