As a child, Morgan Cox used to pretend to be sick so she could go to school and watch her mother teach.

Cox, now a 21-year-old college student in Oklahoma, is finishing a degree in education in hopes of becoming a fourth-grade teacher in a rural district. But she said people are already questioning her decision and warning her that she’ll make much less than her friends who are pursuing other career paths.

“People are like, ‘You want to be a teacher? Well, hopefully you don’t want any money,’” Cox said. “But it’s not all about the pay. You know what they say: If you do what you love, you won’t work a day in your life. And so this is what I love.”

Cox will enter a profession where nationally over 270,000 classroom teachers are dropping out each year, with the majority choosing to change occupations, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Nearly two-thirds of districts now report teacher shortages, and state and local governments face increasing public pressure to raise teacher pay in hopes of attracting qualified people into their classrooms.

Kathy Hootman, an elementary school counselor in northwest Pennsylvania, said people aren’t entering the profession anymore. There used to be two or three student teachers each semester in every building throughout her district. Currently, there are none in her building.

“They don’t see a financial return,” Hootman said, adding it’s not just about salary, but also the costs of student debt and continuing education.

Pennsylvania lawmakers haven’t raised the state’s minimum teacher salary of $18,500 since the 1988-89 school year. Still, the average starting teacher salary there is $46,991, the 12th highest in the country, and teachers can top out at $85,503, according to the National Education Association.

Expectation of 'poor' teachers

Across the country, 222 districts offer less than $30,000 starting pay while 9,000 pay less than $40,000, said Ninive Calegari, co-founder and CEO of the Teacher Salary Project.

Calegari, a former classroom teacher who taught in Massachusetts and California, has been advocating for nearly two decades for a “professional wage” so that teachers aren’t struggling to make ends meet and don’t have to work multiple jobs.

Until recently, the idea had been a tough sell, and Calegari said she often wondered how bad the exodus would need to get before policymakers began to pay attention.

“It’s really an expectation that teachers should be poor and should be struggling. It is really ingrained,” she said.

An Economic Policy Institute analysis of 2021 compensation found that teachers earned 23.5% less than comparable non-teacher college graduates, and that the pay gap has continued to worsen considerably over time. The group found that the pay gap ranges between 3.4% in Rhode Island to 35.9% in Colorado.

The group also found that the “financial penalty” that teachers face discourage people from entering the profession and make it challenging for local districts to retain.

Florina Kapitzke taught at middle and high schools in Traverse City, Michigan, for more than 20 years. During that time, she watched teacher benefits and wages get eroded, sometimes by the state, sometimes by district administration.

She struggled with the idea that she might dissuade someone from entering the education profession, but if asked, she would recommend a job with better pay, she said.

“Without competitive wages, without attractive packages, without respect from both within — and I mean administration and school board — and from without — I mean the public — you can’t expect the same output,” Kapitzke said. “There will be a difference.”

'It's not worth it'

Massachusetts boasts some of the best pay in the nation, with an average annual compensation of $86,755 in the 2020-21 school year. But educators complain that salaries and benefits aren't enough for a state with one of the highest costs of living in the Northeast.

“Our cost of living in some parts of the state is as high as New York City, which is crazy,” said Beth Kontos, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “Teachers just can't afford to live here on the wages they're being paid.”

Many state legislatures are examining compensation. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 25 states have enacted or proposed legislation related to teacher pay since January 2021.

For example, Florida has allocated $800 million to increase its starting salary to at least $47,000 — up about $7,000 — and agreed to give experienced teachers a raise. Mississippi educators received an annual raise of $5,140 — or over 10% — for the current school year, boosting starting pay to over $41,000.

In the nation’s capital, U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Florida, is proposing federal legislation to increase starting pay nationally to $60,000 a year. If passed, the federal government would create an opt-in grant program. In return for funding, states would have provide annual cost-of-living salary boosts.

But for some, it’s too little, too late.

Julie Brownfield, a former Missouri educator, said the stresses of COVID-19 played a role in her decision to retire after becoming eligible at 53, but pay was a factor, too.

Missouri pays the second worst starting average salary at $33,234, according to the NEA. Teachers top out at $56,552, including benefits.

Brownfield said she’s heard the argument that her compensation was reasonable because she earned an annual paycheck for working just nine months each year. But that paycheck didn’t account for all the times she came in early or stayed late, she said. Or cover all the supplies she purchased for her classrooms. Or compensate her for attending additional trainings.

“A lot of men and women are like, ‘It’s not worth it,’” she said.

CNHI reporters Eric Scicchitano, Christian Wade and Grace George contributed to this report.

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