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January 19, 2022

Making Teacher Pay Increases Real and Meaningful

Every Virginia student in every zip code should have the opportunity for a high-quality education, and effective teachers are the most important school-based factor that contributes to academic achievement.  Yet teachers in Virginia are typically paid about a third less than their peers with similar levels of education who are in other fields. And low pay is contributing to unfilled teacher, bus driver, and other positions. Without bold new investments, it may even get worse – a recent national survey of teachers found 1 in 4 were considering leaving their job by the end of the school year, with Black teachers being particularly likely to be considering leaving. Policymakers across the political spectrum recognize the need to raise pay for teachers and other school staff in Virginia to improve retention and attract new teachers. This legislative session, state lawmakers should build upon recent proposals to improve teacher pay and make Virginia a competitive state for educators.

Teacher Pay is Critical to Attract and Retain Teachers and Increase Student Achievement

Teacher pay is important for teacher effectiveness in at least two ways. One is attracting high achieving people to enter the teaching field and to take positions at Virginia schools, and research shows that financial incentives are particularly important for attracting teachers to hard-to-staff schools. Second, teacher pay is important for retaining teachers. Teachers gain critical experience and skills over the first few years of their teaching careers, which has been shown in multiple studies to make them more effective, and experienced teachers also play a critical role as mentors for new colleagues. 

The high share of Black teachers who report that they are planning to leave their jobs is particularly concerning because diverse learning environments benefit students overall, particularly Black students from low-income households. For Black students, the presence of Black teachers has been linked to improved attitudes toward their school, reductions in chronic absenteeism and school dropout rates, as well as increased levels of college enrollment. For Black boys in grades 3-5, the presence of just one Black teacher decreased their likelihood of dropping out of high school by 29%. For Black boys from very low-income households, having one Black teacher decreased their chances of dropping out by 39%.

Teacher Pay in Virginia is Low Compared to Other States and Other Professions

Low teacher pay has negative consequences for students and families, with lower relative pay compared to other professions resulting in lower student achievement. In recent years, Virginia has had the least competitive teacher pay in the country, with teachers being paid 32.7% less — paid just 67 cents for each dollar — compared to their peers in other professions. And average teacher pay in Virginia ($57,665 in 2019-2020) is more than 10% below the national average ($64,133 that same year), even before adjusting for state differences in typical pay for professionals in other fields. This makes it financially challenging for young Virginians to choose to go into teaching, and can result in experienced teachers leaving for jobs that better allow them to support their families. 

Some of Virginia’s poorest counties where students face many challenges have the lowest levels of teacher pay. Starting salaries for licensed classroom teachers with bachelor’s degrees are under $35,000 in Buchanan and Russell counties and in Buena Vista City, according to the Virginia Department of Education FY2020 salary survey. Particularly in rural and high-poverty schools, low pay has increased reliance on provisionally licensed teachers who may be trying to complete their own coursework for licensure while also facing the challenges of being a new classroom teacher.

State of Virginia Must Do More

State policymakers cannot and should not push the problem of low teacher pay onto local governments. Virginia is a high capacity state with high median incomes. Yet we continue to do less than most other states to provide an adequate education and put much of the burden on local governments, many of whom do not have the capacity to provide additional resources beyond the minimum that is required in the state funding formula. 

Virginia’s low level of combined state and local support for public education is demonstrated in the state’s funding effort, funding level, and funding distribution. In both 2020 and 2021, Virginia received “D” grades in the Education Law Center’s (ELC) annual school funding report for school funding effort, which compares state and local funding to the state’s ability to pay. ELC also gave Virginia “D” grades in both 2020 and 2021 for funding level itself, which compares state and local spending levels to educational costs. In 2021 specifically, Virginia ranked 37 out of 51 on funding level, with state and local governments providing an average of $13,248 per pupil (after adjusting for cost differences between states). That’s $2,239 below the national average of $15,487. 

Additionally, Virginia public school per-pupil funding is essentially flat across high-poverty and low-poverty school divisions despite evidence that students in high poverty settings need additional resources to overcome barriers to learning. Analysis by race instead of income shows even more troubling results: One study by Education Trust showed that Virginia divisions serving the highest share of students of color in 2015 had 8% less total state and local funding per pupil than divisions serving the lowest share of students of color. To make matters worse, compared to other states Virginia places a high burden on localities to pay for a majority of K-12 costs. Virginia is 40th in the country in state government support for public schools. School divisions that are located in rural areas, have a majority of students of color, or are in communities with a high share of poverty often have less resources to invest in schools. This leads to inadequate resources for students.

Moving Forward This Legislative Session

Teachers and staff are a critical part of public schools and student success. Bold investment is needed for Virginia teacher pay to catch up to the national average, and even bolder investment is needed for our teachers to have competitive wages. 

The budget proposed by the outgoing governor for the 2022-2024 biennium includes the state’s share of a significant salary increase for instructional and support positions funded by the Standards of Quality — 5% annual increases for the 2022-2023 school year and the 2023-2024 school year. Raising teacher and staff salaries by 5% each year is an important first step in addressing Virginia’s low level of support for public education. 

However, this is not enough. Additional increases are needed for Virginia to catch up to the national average, which will reach $71,317 by 2024 even if annual increases between 2020 and 2024 are only 2.7% (a conservative estimate given high current inflation rates). In order for us to truly catch up to the national average, Virginia needs an increase in teacher pay of at least 13% over the coming biennium. 

Furthermore, merely catching up to the national average is not the same as being competitive in teacher pay compared to people in other fields with similar levels of education and experience. With Virginia teachers generally being paid just 67 cents for every dollar paid to their peers, reaching competitive pay levels may not be realistic within one biennium. Yet it provides important context for the small yet important increases that are currently being discussed by policymakers and which lawmakers must move forward this legislative session.

Budget & Revenue, Education

Phil Hernandez

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