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• Cardona left out that the $29 pay gain is over the course of a week, not the course of the year. The gains over a year amount to $1,508.
• Teacher pay still trails the gains in earnings experienced by the overall workforce and college-educated workers.
As students and teachers were heading back to the classroom, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona appeared on NBC’s "Meet the Press" to discuss the state of education in the U.S.
Cardona expressed regret that teacher pay across the country has not increased significantly over the past quarter century.
"Well, if you've heard my interviews, you've heard me say this teacher shortage issue is a symptom of what I call a teacher respect issue," Cardona told host Chuck Todd on Aug. 21. "We need to respect the profession better. College graduates earn 33% more than your average teacher when they leave. And adjusted for inflation, over the last 25 years teachers have made a $29 increase in their salary. That's unacceptable, the fact that we've normalized teachers driving Uber on the weekends to make ends meet or working at a restaurant, waiting tables to make ends meet. We have to lift the profession."
We took a closer look at his statement that "adjusted for inflation, over the last 25 years teachers have made a $29 increase in their salary."
We found that Cardona left out an important frame of reference: the change in teachers’ weekly salary rates, not their annual salaries. Still, his underlying point, that teacher pay gains have lagged that of other American workers, is solid.
Cardona’s office told PolitiFact that he was referring to statistics from the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank.
In a report released Aug. 16, the group found that inflation-adjusted average weekly wages of teachers had increased by just $29 between 1996 and 2021, specifically from $1,319 to $1,348 in inflation-adjusted dollars.
Over 52 weeks, that is an increase of $1,508 above inflation over that 25-year period.
Teachers are often paid on a school-year basis, so their actual earnings increase in a given year may have been less than that. Sylvia Allegretto, the author of the EPI paper, told PolitiFact that there is not a significant difference in the data between hourly and annual wages; both tell a similar story. "What is important is the growing (shortfall in) teacher pay results, regardless" of the method used to measure it, she said.
To calculate these figures, the group used two detailed data sets from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We decided to see if the data from Cardona’s own department tracked with the Economic Policy Institute’s. So we examined National Center for Education Statistics’ data to find the estimated average annual salary of teachers in public elementary and secondary schools.
Those numbers are just a little different. Between the 1995-96 school year and the 2020-21 school year, average annual K-12 teacher salaries in public schools rose from $64,113 to $65,090. That’s an increase of $977 after accounting for inflation. (The Economic Policy Institute and Education Department tracked salaries of teachers via only average income, not the median. Allegretto said that either measure would be acceptable for studying teacher pay; unlike some fields where extreme outliers can skew averages compared to medians, the range of salaries in K-12 teaching is fairly compact.)
That wage-scale gain trailed those experienced by full-time workers as a whole.
Between the third quarter of 1995 and the second quarter of 2022, the median weekly earnings for full-time workers age 16 and up rose from $313 to $358, when adjusted for inflation, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
That’s an increase in weekly income of $45, which works out to $2,340 on an annual basis, or more than one and a half times the rate of increase for teachers.
Meanwhile, the increases for workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher — which is a category that most teachers would fall into — increased even more rapidly.
Statistics from the Education Department show that workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher had median annual earnings of $50,480 in 1995 and $54,102 in 2020 (using 1995 dollars to adjust for inflation). That’s an increase of more than $3,622 over the same period, or a rate of increase much higher than for teachers.
Over a 25-year period, even the more generous estimate for teachers’s wage gains — $1,508 — works out to just a $60 pay increase above inflation every year, on average.
For holders of bachelor’s degrees or higher, the increase per year above inflation was about $145.
Cardona said, "Adjusted for inflation, over the last 25 years teachers have made a $29 increase in their salary."
While a listener may assume that this means a $29 increase over the course of the year, this is actually $29 over the course of a week. The gains over 52 weeks amount to $1,508 (although many teachers are not paid over the summer).
Still, that’s not a lot of a gain over 25 years, and it trails the gains seen by workers overall by a modest amount and trails the gains seen by college-educated workers by even more.
We rate the statement Half True.
Miguel Cardona, interview with NBC’s "Meet the Press," Aug. 21, 2022
Economic Policy Institute, "The teacher pay penalty has hit a new high," Aug. 16, 2022
National Center for Education Statistics, "Table 211.50: Estimated average annual salary of teachers in public elementary and secondary schools: Selected years, 1959-60 through 2020-21," accessed Aug. 23, 2022
National Center for Education Statistics, "Table 502.20: Median annual earnings, number, and percentage of full-time year-round workers age 25 and over, by highest level of educational attainment and sex: Selected years, 1990 through 2020," accessed Aug. 23, 2022
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, "Employed full time: Median usual weekly real earnings: Wage and salary workers: 16 years and over," accessed Aug. 23, 2022
Email interview with Sylvia A. Allegretto, research associate with the Economic Policy Institute, Aug. 24, 2022
Statement from Education Department to PolitiFact, Aug. 23, 2022
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