My wife and I had dinner in a Vineyard restaurant last week. Our waitress, a very pleasant young woman, appeared to be in her mid-20s. In a short conversation as we were finishing up, we discovered that she was a first grade teacher on the Island. That’s her full-time job, but she was also working as a waitress four nights a week (and waitressing full-time during summers).
For me, this was déjà vu, because nearly 40 years ago, my very first report for the “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” introduced viewers to teachers holding down part-time jobs while also teaching full-time. We filmed it in McMinnville, Ore., and I still recall the high school English teacher who worked in a 7-11, where he often encountered his students, now his customers. That was in 1984.
The young woman last night and the man from Oregon are hardly unique. Overall, about 20 percent of teachers hold second jobs during the school year, accounting for roughly 9 percent of their annual income. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teachers are about three times as likely as other U.S. workers to moonlight. (Another study provides a precise number, 17 percent.)
However, if you factor in part-time jobs within the school system, like coaching, teaching evening classes, or even driving a school bus, then an astonishing 59 percent of teachers are working part-time to supplement what they earn as full-time teachers, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). The authors of that article, economists Emma García and Elaine Weiss write, “Moonlighting can increase stress and drive disengagement, as teachers are forced to juggle multiple schedules and have their family and leisure time reduced. And if moonlighting occurs outside the school system, the challenges of juggling the extra work are likely greater.”
How bad are things for teachers? “In about half of all U.S. states, the average teacher does not even earn a living wage needed to support a family,” according to the National Association of State Boards of Education.
Garcia and Weiss believe that economic stress is driving teachers out of the field; public awareness of this situation helps explain both the current teacher shortage and also the drop in enrollment in teacher-training programs.
And it’s not as if teachers have tons of extra time to spend on part-time jobs, because public school teachers also often work more than the average 39.4 hours a week required by their employment contracts. In 2020–21, teachers worked 52 hours a week on average, 25.2 of those hours teaching. (And if you are now thinking that “only” five hours a day teaching children is a walk in the park, you obviously have never been a teacher!)
Teacher salaries have not kept up with inflation. An NEA report released in the spring of 2022 reports that teacher salaries, adjusted for inflation, decreased by around 3.9 percent during the past decade.
And according to the newspaper Education Week, “Teachers are also working under a ‘pay penalty,’ an economic concept meaning they earn lower weekly wages and receive lower overall compensation for their work than similar college-educated peers, according to the Economic Policy Institute. That penalty reached a record high in 2021, with teachers earning 76.5 cents on the dollar compared with their peers.”
Should we have a national minimum teacher salary? Democratic Congresswoman Federica Wilson of Florida believes it’s time. In mid-December she introduced the American Teacher Act, which would provide grants and incentives to increase the minimum K-12 salary to $60,000, with yearly adjustments for inflation. Nationally, the average salary is about $61,000, with many states falling below that dollar amount. But even within a state where the average is above $60,000, the federal law would have a profound impact, because teacher salaries vary widely; for example, here in Massachusetts, the average teacher salary is about $82,000, one of the highest in the nation, but the range is staggering. Ten districts pay more than $100,000, while a few others pay just over $40,000.
Four Island districts are in the top 50: Oak Bluffs (No. 38), $91,687; Tisbury (No. 30), $93,376; Edgartown (No. 8), $100,739; and the M.V. Regional High School District (No. 6), $102,427.
That bill has close to a zero chance of passing the House, now controlled by Republicans, and it’s unclear whether it could pass the Senate. Public education doesn’t have strong and vocal supporters, even though most parents support public schools.
What we are experiencing is the slow death of public education. And should the system die, the autopsy will not say “accidental death,” because the attacks on public education are deliberate. One strategy is to stave the system by cutting spending and diverting dollars to vouchers, private schools, online academies, and for-profit charter schools. The right-wing takeover of local school boards is another piece of this concerted attack.
The unrelenting attacks have taken a toll. In 1999, only 13 percent of adults were “completely dissatisfied” with public schools; today it’s 23 percent. In 2022, only 42 percent of adults said they were either “completely satisfied” or “satisfied” with public schools, a large drop from nearly 50 percent in 2001.
So do we wring our hands, or do we fight back? If you want to fight back, support changes that improve the lives of teachers (and students), by limiting standardized testing and giving teachers more of a say in the curriculum. It’s time to make teaching a true profession, which I have written about on my website, bit.ly/tmerrow.
John Merrow is a former correspondent for “PBS NewsHour” and NPR. He is president and founder of Learning Matters.