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New report shows Colorado teachers are losing ground in pay penalties

A new report from the Economic Policy Institute found that the so-called teacher pay penalty is at an all time high, but that gap is even higher in Colorado.
A new report from the Economic Policy Institute found that the so-called teacher pay penalty is at an all time high, but that gap is even higher in Colorado.

Public servants frequently receive lower pay than workers in the private sector, but for teachers that pay gap is particularly striking.

A new report from the Economic Policy Institute found the so-called teacher pay penalty is at an all-time high nationwide, but is particularly high in Colorado.

The report’s author, and Economic Policy Institute research associate, Sylvia Allegretto, describes the teacher wage penalty as how much teachers earn relative to their non-teaching professional peers.

“That's after we take into account differences such as age and education and state of residency,” she said.

“So we have an apples to apples comparison, given relative teacher pay compared to other non-teaching peers.”

Shannon Young spoke with Sylvia Allegretto about the report and its implications.

SY: Your study found that it's at an all-time high nationwide, but that it's especially striking here in Colorado. Just how striking is the disparity?

SA: We estimate teacher wage gaps for each and every state in the country.

Teachers in Colorado have the largest weekly wage gap.

They earn over a third, less than their non-teaching counterparts.

That's the biggest state gap that we've estimated in this report.

SY: What's the reason behind the pay gap here?

SA: Well, it's hard to know exactly, but being somebody who lived a long time in Colorado, I know that Colorado has been booming.

So, wages generally, especially for other professionals, as Colorado has invested in tech and other industries that are paid pretty high wages, especially in the Denver-Boulder corridor, you see the two moving parts here.

One is what's happening to the wages of other professionals, we know that has been increasing for quite some time in Colorado.

And then what's happening to teacher pay, and we know with the walkouts that occurred in Colorado in 2018 and 19, this was already on the agenda that there was an issue with teacher pay in Colorado.

So when you put the two together, what we have is a very, very large and significant weekly wage differential that over a career for somebody in Colorado would be just an enormous sum of money.

SY: And how does this affect retention rates of educators and the overall quality of the public school system?

SA: Well, look, this time of year, every single state is now scurrying to get teachers in the classroom.

Every single state has teacher shortages.

And we know from surveys that teachers leave the profession, especially after COVID, there's certainly some issues there.

We do know that the pay gap is part of the reason why there's difficulties in retaining experienced teachers and attracting new teachers into the profession.

The kids in school today, the college kids in school today, they're going figure out what they want to do for their careers, know of these differences, their career counselors, are very much aware of this.

So surveys tell us that even kids who want to become school teachers, a lot of times, even their parents kind of steer them against it because they just think it's going to be very hard for instance, to pay back these enormous student loans that many of them will have, when they know that their pay will likely fall further and further behind.

SY: I'd like to get your thoughts on what's behind this trend. Why is it accepted to underpay teachers?

SA: The trend is kind of two parts, the part about what's happening with the wages of teachers, and then also what's happening with the wages of other college grads.

And also, I think we have to keep in mind that teaching used to be women, almost all women, it still is today.

Over 75% of teachers are women.

That's the same percentage in 1960, but in 1960 women were a captive labor pool.

Educated women were a captive labor pool for teaching because we had huge barriers that women faced that couldn't go into all kinds of other professions, and so that's no longer the case.

The good news is the over these decades, all kinds of opportunity has opened up for women, and women are going into those other professions, they're doctors and lawyers and dentists and judges and all kinds of working in tech and all kinds of other industries that pay more.

So part of it is what we call, you know, the opportunity cost, and that opportunity cost is getting too big and too negative to expect women just to keep teaching.

We have to make it competitive.

It should be hard to become a teacher and it should be very highly paid to become a teacher in the United States of America.

That's what it really should be like.

We are the wealthiest country in the world, and we could do this.

It's not wealth, it's will that stands in the way.

This story from KGNU was shared with Aspen Public Radio via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, including Aspen Public Radio.

Shannon Young is based in Boulder. She has worked in Mexico as a foreign correspondent and regularly contributed to PRX’s “The World”, Public Radio International, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), The Guardian, Vice News, Truthout, and the Texas Observer.