More financial pressure, fewer career choices
Asha Smith, 25, is currently a high school teacher at a private school in Delaware, but started her career as a City Year AmeriCorps member at a school populated mainly by students of color. She had always wanted to be a teacher to combine her love of writing with her love of children. Her experience at City Year, which pairs recent college graduates with high-need schools to serve as mentors and teachers aides, inspired her to become an English teacher.
“It changed my life,” Smith said. “We became an integrated part of the community, and there are still kids who I keep in contact with to this day.”
Although she generally enjoyed her role, Smith was $40,000 in debt and earned a monthly stipend of $1,200—roughly $14,400 for the year—but counted herself as one of the luckier ones. She was able to live with her mother instead of paying rent in Washington, D.C., where the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $2,344, nearly twice her monthly pay. She was classified as a public servant during her time at City Year, which allowed her to defer her federal student loans, but she still had her private loans from Sallie Mae, credit card debt, and car payments eating up her paycheck, while she also chipped in for monthly household expenses. If she had to pay rent on top of that, Smith said she would have needed to engage in “extreme money management.”
For white teachers such as Chaz Rotenberg, the story is often different. Coming from an upper-class family, Rotenberg obtained an economics degree with no debt and secured a job through Teach for America in Washington, D.C., with a $54,000 salary. Like Smith, he lived at home, so he had few expenses, but he also did not have to worry about student loan repayments or credit card debt.
“There are a lot of barriers to getting into education, particularly when considering other options in the economy,” Rotenberg said. “The racial wealth gap, and its effects on teachers, essentially creates reverse incentive structures.”
Unlike Smith, Rotenberg had the privilege of obtaining a degree without accruing student loan debt. Additionally, despite the fact that the average economics degree can garner a salary of $68,376, he had the freedom to choose a less lucrative career as a teacher and still obtained pay that was about $8,000 higher than the average starting salary in the area. That flexibility and freedom of career choice is often out of reach for Black, Indigenous, and other teachers of color, who already struggle with inadequate salaries and often don’t have the cushion of generational wealth.
To put this into context, the average white family had a net worth nearly 10 times that of a Black family in 2016. As a result, students of color generally have less capital to pull from to pay for college and end up having to choose between attending lower-priced (and often lower ranked) schools or taking on debt to attend a higher-priced institution. On average, Black college graduates have $52,000 in student loan debt and owe an average of $25,000 more than their white counterparts, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Low pay and teacher shortages
Tensions related to teacher pay have boiled over numerous times, often resulting in protracted strikes. A 2018 report from the Economic Policy Institute and the University of California, Berkeley’s Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics found that teachers in every state are paid less on average than other workers with similar educational backgrounds. Additionally, Black teachers earn $2,700 less per year than white teachers, and those who teach in high-poverty areas earn $4,000 less than those who teach in low-poverty regions. Many teachers of color are overtly steered toward working in high-poverty areas, contributing to segregation of teachers that the Brookings Institute has called worse than the racial segregation of students that can still be seen in many school districts today.
Many teachers are also left on their own to provide for the basic needs of their students. Their salaries are further eaten by paying for classroom items such as pens, pencils, and notebooks for their students throughout the year. A report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that the average teacher spent $479 on school supplies in the 2014-2015 school year, with some teachers spending as much as $1,000 out of their own pockets, of which the IRS only allows them to deduct up to $250. Those additional classroom expenses are often the last straw on top of inequitable salaries that barely meet teachers’ own basic needs.
Moss made $20,000 when she taught in the Bronx but was “always spending [her] own money to create learning environments where students of color could thrive.” So she left for a nonprofit organization where she immediately made $13,000 more and didn’t have to buy her own supplies. She’s still frustrated over how little support and financial resources teachers and classrooms are given and what they’re expected to do without in their jobs.
Bayliss Fiddiman, associate director for K-12 education at the Center for American Progress, said that low teacher pay has resulted in a teacher shortage. The shortage among teachers of color is further exacerbating racial and ethnic inequities in the field. In 2020, over 80% of the teacher workforce in public schools were white, and teachers of color left the profession at a much higher rate. Fiddiman noted how in times of recession, student scores increase because more people who wouldn’t usually enter the education field end up taking jobs because of the stability, despite the low pay. But retaining those teachers is an ongoing problem.
“If student loans were not such a big burden and that financial barrier to teaching was removed, especially for first-generation students, we’d see a lot more people consider teaching as a career,” Fiddiman said.
Both teachers and policy experts agree that educators should be better compensated because of the critical role they play in society and to attract and retain racially diverse talent in an overwhelmingly white field. A diverse teaching workforce has proven beneficial for all students, particularly for students of color who achieve higher test scores, which researchers believe may be due to same-race teachers being better equipped to connect culturally to serve as role models for their students. But teachers of color continue to face both a lack of institutional support and incentives and increasing financial pressures that often result in their departure, leaving students of color to pay the price.
Removing the barrier of debt
Sharif El-Mekki runs the Center for Black Educator Development, which strives to address educational inequities to improve students’ academic and social outcomes through increased teacher diversity. They recently published Respecting Educator Activists of Color: The Anti-Racist Guide to Teacher Retention, emphasizing the importance of fellowships that defy a “racist, classist narrative that presupposes a ‘get mine’ ethos.” El-Mekki’s Center starts very early in its engagement with prospective teachers and views the pipeline for Black teachers stretching 12 years, all the way from high school through a teacher’s first four years of teaching.
“People shouldn’t have to go into debt to serve communities in this way,” El-Mekki said. “Especially when you see the benefit of a Black teacher, you can’t look at that type of impact and say we need you, but this is the large amount of debt you need to accrue to help your community.”
While such initiatives would benefit educators of color in the public school system, they’re more common in private schools where there is often a lack of racial diversity amongst teachers. The vast majority of nonwhite teachers work in public education, however, and rely on local, state, and federal policy changes to lower barriers to entry and retention.
The Center for American Progress (CAP) has proposed a $10,000 tax credit for those who teach in low-income schools, where 75% of students or more receive free or reduced-price lunch. The credit would phase out as the percentage of these students declined. CAP estimates that the cost of such a program would be $15 billion annually, a “drop in the bucket” compared to the $1.5 trillion tax cut to the wealthy and corporations in the 2017 tax law passed by the Trump administration.
Matthew Chingos, the vice president for education data and policy at the Urban Institute, said that while the CAP proposal made sense, it wouldn’t address the educational debt issue or the fact that the repayment system is not working as it should.
“More and more people are defaulting on loans,” Chingos said. “We should be thinking about the racially disparate impact of these education requirements because we’re making people get degrees they don’t need, which places a burden on teachers of color, particularly Black teachers.”
Chingos pointed to evidence that teachers who hold graduate degrees have little impact on the educational outcomes of their students compared to teachers who don’t have graduate degrees. Yet, every year more jobs call for advanced degrees. These requirements put teachers of color, who are more likely to be in debt from their undergraduate degrees, in even more precarious financial situations that many say aren’t useful.
Some states are trying to address teachers’ financial burdens in other ways. For instance, New Jersey has a “teachers village,” which houses 203 affordable housing units for teachers near the schools in which they teach. Earlier this year, Connecticut legislators passed a bill that would create pathways for people of color who already work within other areas of education to become teachers—over 40% of Connecticut students are BIPOC, but only 9% of teachers are. In addition, the San Francisco nonprofit Urban Academy works closely with public schools to ensure that every student has at least one Black male teacher before they enter the sixth grade.
The scope and variety of these initiatives underscore the importance of race-conscious policymaking that considers how centuries of segregation and racial discrimination have blocked access to education for families of color, particularly Black families, and as a result, the attainment of wealth. In a silo, an increase in teachers of color and higher wages will benefit the education field, but that alone will not close the racial wealth gap. Economists like Darrick Hamilton and William Darity Jr. have shown that Black parents with a college degree have less wealth than white parents who did not finish high school.
To truly address how the racial wealth gap affects teachers and students of color, policymakers will need to tackle it holistically and in its entirety. Until the structural racism embedded within the economy is fully addressed, the student loan crisis, teacher diversity problem, or lack of access to higher education won’t be solved equitably.
Trevor Smith is a New York-based narrative and cultural strategist who writes and researches on topics including racial inequality, the wealth gap, and reparations. He is currently the director of narrative change at Liberation Ventures, a field-builder fueling the movement for racial repair in the United States, where he is creating a Reparations Narrative Lab.
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