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Sanders Vows to Work on Raising “Pathetically Low” Teacher Salaries

Canceling student debt and establishing a higher base pay for teachers could help solve shortages, Sanders said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to the press after meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House in Washington, D.C., on January 25, 2023.

In his new role as head of the committee overseeing education policy in the Senate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) says a top priority will be fixing what he says are “pathetically low” starting salaries for teachers across the U.S., potentially starting with legislation to set a nationwide base salary to ensure that educators are paid properly.

Sanders told Education Week this week that addressing the teacher shortages that have spread across the country during the pandemic will be a “big issue” for him as chair of the powerful Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee — and that a substantial factor in addressing the shortages will be raising teacher salaries.

“[W]hat is really very upsetting to me is that salaries for incoming teachers are just pathetically low,” Sanders said. “You have many places in this country where you graduate college, you have student debt, and you begin your teaching profession at $16 an hour. That’s just not acceptable.”

Teacher salaries have historically been low compared to salaries of other workers with college degrees, and the disparity has grown larger in recent years.

A report last year from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found that, in 2021, teachers made on average 23.5 percent less weekly than other college graduates, or about 76 cents on the dollar — a record high disparity for teacher salaries. This difference exists regardless of the common argument against raising teacher pay that teachers get summers off, EPI found, as the number of hours a teacher works weekly is comparable to that of other workers.

Sanders said that he supports a recent House bill aimed at establishing a base $60,000 salary for teachers nationwide, with cost-of-living adjustments pegged to inflation, and that he is preparing similar legislation. Dealing with the student debt that is plaguing teachers and workers across the country could also help attract people to teaching, he said.

“Teachers do enormously important, difficult work. They need to be respected. We need to attract young people in college to go into the profession. Yes, I do think $60,000 is appropriate for what teachers should be earning at a minimum,” Sanders said.

“We have to deal, obviously, with the issue of student debt as well. Many young people are going into the profession completely in debt. I support what President Joe Biden has proposed,” he added. “I would go further. I think we should cancel all student debt. That would be an important step forward in terms of attracting and maintaining teachers.”

On top of extremely low salaries — which have sparked a wave of teacher strikes in recent years — and stressors triggered by COVID-19, public school teachers and educators are finding themselves increasingly treated as scapegoats by fascist politicians and astroturfed campaigns to limit teachers’ ability to discuss race or LGBTQ issues in classrooms.

The fascist charge against public school education has been especially strong in Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis recently announced that he’s banning public schools from offering Advanced Placement (AP) African American studies courses — a blatantly racist move to censor what students are allowed to learn about the U.S.’s history of slavery and oppression of Black people.

Republicans achieve several aims by targeting schools and libraries: they fuel hateful attacks against Black and LGBTQ people, while making the case to even further defund public schools in order to empower corporate-backed charter schools and private schools.

Sanders rejected right-wing efforts to pass private school vouchers and back so-called school choice, saying that lawmakers must empower public schools and expand community schools, which are schools that also act as community centers where students can access health care, extracurricular activities, and other youth services.

He also denounced the right’s current attacks on education.

“I don’t think you go into the future by trying to hide or disguise what happened in the past. People can argue. You can debate, but I think it is important for young people and for people all over this country to take a hard and honest look at our history. That’s the best way we can go forward. Knowing the past helps us go forward in a better way in the future,” he said. “Just saying that we should not expose kids to the horrors of slavery or the way we treated Native American people, that’s not acceptable to me.”

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