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Some states raise teacher pay amid pandemic shortage, but can they retain the educators?

“We can’t afford rent or our mortgage and the price of gasoline and food,” a middle school art teacher in Santa Fe, New Mexico, said.
Schools reopening in Mississippi amidst coronavirus pandemic.
Columbia Elementary School fourth grade reading and language arts teacher Danielle Whittington works with students, in Columbia, Miss., on Aug. 25, 2020.Edmund D. Fountain for The Washington Post via Getty Images file

Jamie Torres spent the first three years of her teaching career “practically being homeless.” Her starting salary of $38,000 in 2018 wasn’t enough to afford rent in the neighborhoods near where she taught in Sante Fe, New Mexico, so she bunked with family members for months at a time or stayed with friends.

“I tried looking around everywhere for a house. The lowest place I could find for even a studio here in Santa Fe at that time was roughly around like $1,300,” she said. “So, on a first-year teaching salary, it was literally impossible for me as a single adult to afford rent in Santa Fe.”

Torres, a special education teacher, is one of hundreds of educators across Sante Fe whose paycheck will get a boost this year after New Mexico legislators voted to increase teacher pay. Her salary will climb 20 percent, from $50,000 to $60,000, she said, calling the increase “definitely a really good first step.”

As the pandemic has disrupted schools across the U.S. and a shortage of teachers has put a spotlight on their demands for higher pay and better working conditions, several states have approved raises, including some of the largest in years. In addition to New Mexico, Alabama and Mississippi also recently approved bills that would increase teacher pay by thousands of dollars.

The increases come with the hopes of recruiting and retaining teachers and combating the shortages exacerbated by the pandemic.

But while teachers say they’re grateful for the raises, some wonder if the pay boosts will be enough to retain teachers who feel burned out, disrespected and as though their concerns have been ignored for years. Some, like Torres, said the pay increases are a much-needed start to a broader conversation about what can be done to support teachers, including through policy changes to make housing, health care and child care more affordable and accessible.

“This raise will help bring awareness, but it won’t change everything,” Torres said. 

Last month, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill that her office said in a news release would increase base salary levels for teachers in the state by an average of 20 percent.

The bill increases minimum salary tiers for educators by $10,000 to $50,000, $60,000 and $70,000. 

The governor said at the time that teachers have to be paid a salary that corresponds with their “experience, education and the fact that they are working more than full time supporting their students.”

For some New Mexico teachers, especially those in urban areas like Santa Fe, who are contending with record inflation every time they head to the gas station or grocery store, the increase may not go far enough.

According to Zumper, a real estate analytics firm, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Santa Fe is $1,666, up 40 percent from a year ago.

“We can’t afford rent or our mortgage and the price of gasoline and food,” said Grace Mayer, a middle school art teacher and president of the National Education Association for Santa Fe. “I’m concerned it’s not going to retain the teachers. I’m concerned it doesn’t go far enough because we already have a shortage. And I’m afraid that our more experienced employees are going to retire.”

Resignations and retirements have mounted in schools across the nation due, at least in part, to the ongoing Covid pandemic. As of January, 44 percent of schools reported having at least one teaching vacancy, and nearly half had at least one staff vacancy, according to data released last month by the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics. More than half of those vacancies were because of resignations, the data found.

Nancy Messer, who teaches education and training in Alabama, praised the state’s recent pay raise as acknowledgement of the difficult job they do.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed the measure approving pay raises for teachers earlier this month. Depending on the teacher's experience, the pay hike ranges from 4 percent to about 21 percent. 

It’s a “fairly significant raise for many of us, and it’s been much-needed,” Messer said. “Teachers have felt undervalued for a long time on the basis of our pay and what we do every day and what teachers mean to our society.”

But even with this boost, “teachers are still going to have to live on a budget,” she said. 

Many teachers have gotten second jobs or side jobs, “and this may help relieve some of the economic burden, especially with the inflation and the general cost of living going up as it is right now,” she said. “The raise will help us currently, but we are definitely not going to be ahead of the game.”

Lisa Toney, a first grade teacher in Birmingham with more than 30 years of experience, said she works three or four additional jobs “to try to survive” and hopes the raise will let her drop one or two of those. She also hopes the money will improve her credit score, as she will have more money to pay all of her bills.

“It’s going to help with the gas prices. It’s going to help with inflation and food,” she said. 

It remains to be seen whether the raises will also be enough to help with recruitment and retainment.

In Mississippi, some teachers cross state lines to work in places where they can sometimes earn $5,000 to $10,000 more, said Erica Jones, the president of the Mississippi Association of Educators. 

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves signed a bill last month that gives teachers an average increase of about $5,100, raising some salaries by more than 10 percent in the largest pay raise for teachers in the state in decades. The starting salary for teachers with a bachelor’s degree will increase from $37,000 to $41,500 under the new law, and teachers with additional experience will receive more pay.

Jones called the raise “timely.”

“I am hoping that it’s going to keep our educators here in Mississippi, inside their classrooms,” she said. 

But Geraldine Bender, the president of the American Federation of Teachers Mississippi, said despite its historic nature, the raise “still doesn’t take them up to what they should be earning as teachers.”

“It will help but will not keep them from having to balance their checkbook some other way,” she said.