The salaries of our country’s teachers have become a subject of the news. Whether or not you agree with school pay scales, you’ve seen protests, strikes, and legislation around the topic year after year. And despite all of this action, the salaries of our educators have steadily gone down in relation to average salaries in almost every state.

In 1991, experienced teachers and staff earned salaries above their state average in 26 out of 42 states (8 states and Washington, D.C., did not provide relevant data to the Labor Department). In 2017, teachers’ earnings were above average in only one state—Rhode Island.

States that failed the worst at keeping up with teacher wages were states like Wisconsin, where they dropped from 1.2 to 0.9 times the average worker’s pay. Wisconsin is also one of the states which has had the largest tax cuts in those 27 years, mostly to the uppermost 1 percent of their earning population. Those tax cuts have impacted education budgets, including teacher salaries. Since the 2008 recession, 24 states have not returned their education budgets to pre-recession levels.

“Most of the states with the deepest cuts in school funding in the last decade are states that cut taxes, leaving them with less revenue for paying teachers and covering other necessary school costs,” Michael Leachman, an expert on state budgets with the federal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, told the Washington Post.

Forty-seven percent of school funding, and thus the funding for teacher salaries and that of other school staff, comes from the state government, which is also dealing with state-level issues like the rising costs of health care. Not only that, but states have had to deal with the rising cost of prisons, which by 2014 had become the third-highest category of state spending, behind only education and healthcare.

About 45 percent of public school funding comes largely from local property taxes. As home values have fallen, so has property tax revenue. The remaining 8 percent comes from the federal government’s discretionary budget, which has always remained low relative to the size of the economy.

“What a teacher does hasn’t changed much over time, but what skilled occupations do and what they can command has. As markets have gotten global, there’s been an increase in the return to skills and the return to education,” said Christiana Stoddard, a researcher for Montana State University. “It’s hard for teachers to compete with that.” Stoddard’s career is invested in studying how education is shaped around teachers.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in that time, from the 1990s to today, the value of a primary education has greatly diminished as well. In today’s job market, a high school diploma has almost no worth. Any job capable of supporting a family, even a two-income one, requires either a trade education or a college degree.

Photo: Teachers, students, and union allies marched through downtown Los Angeles on December 15, 2018, ahead of a possible strike. Credit: Karl_Sonnenberg /