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Like much of the country, Minnesota is facing a shortage of K-12 educators. In a survey, 95% of school districts reported difficulty filling teaching positions, and more than two-thirds reported being forced to leave positions unfilled because of a lack of qualified applicants.
A new study by the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota suggests a key driver of the problem: The state's teachers simply aren't earning enough.
K-12 education is a difficult profession that often requires significant training. In Minnesota, more than 55% of teachers hold postsecondary degrees — a higher share than professions like mechanical engineers or financial analysts. During the school year they work harder hours than most professions, working earlier and more on the weekends. Contrary to what some may believe, research indicates that most teachers do not get summers off, though their summer hours are somewhat reduced. And of course, teaching is mentally and emotionally strenuous, requiring the constant monitoring of roomfuls of children — a dynamic and stressful work environment.
As full-time professionals, educators can reasonably expect to be paid enough to support their families at a minimum standard of living. But in Minnesota, that often isn't the case, especially at the start of teaching careers.
Over one-third of all Minnesota teaching salaries are insufficient to provide bare cost-of-living for a typical family in their county. Those salaries are too low to afford basic necessities for food, clothing, housing and health care — forget about future savings, vacations or entertainment.
The problem is significantly worse for early career teachers. Over 94% of teachers in the first five years of employment earn less than cost-of-living for their area. In fact, on average, teachers don't meet this basic standard until they've been employed for nine years.
This sets up a "cost trap" for younger teachers. Even if they expect to earn middle-class compensation after decades of work, it does little good if they can't afford to support their families at the outset of their careers. And because of the comparatively steep educational requirements of the profession, many new teachers likely enter with significant student loans. In short, it's difficult to begin a teaching career and have a family, unless the teacher's partner has a second full-time income.
The salary picture for more experienced teachers is similarly unappealing. Although teaching salaries usually rise with time, they are not, on average, commensurate with the salaries of similarly credentialed professionals. The average Minnesota worker with a bachelor's degree earns $68,100; the average teacher, $50,900. The average Minnesota worker with a master's degree earned $86,750; the average teacher, $71,750. This educational salary gap creates long-term employment pressure away from K-12 education.
What can policymakers do? Many states have proposed schemes to streamline teacher licensing or connect college students to K-12 schools. But 38% of Minnesota's licensed teachers are currently leaving their licenses unused — strong evidence that the problem is not insufficient supply but unattractive jobs.
Instead, the most obvious approach is also the simplest: Pay teachers more. Although educator compensation is negotiated at the district level, some states have implemented statewide schemes to ensure adequate teacher pay. Seventeen states have established statewide teacher pay schedules, to set up a "floor" for salaries. And a handful of states, most notably New Mexico, have implemented a minimum salary, below which licensed teachers cannot be paid, and have provided state aid to districts to help plug the financial gap.
A minimum teacher salary may sound like a dramatic solution, but is surprisingly affordable. Bringing all salaries from the 2019-2020 school year to bare cost of living in the employer's county would have increased Minnesota's K-12 education spending by a mere 1.8%, while virtually eliminating the most severe financial strains that make early career teaching so unappealing.
Teaching is the backbone of education. Minnesota cannot operate high-quality schools if no one will work in them. The best way to restore a slowly eroding profession is to pay the professionals what they're worth.
Myron Orfield is the Earl R. Larson Professor of Civil Rights at the University of Minnesota Law School. Will Stancil is a research fellow there.