Elementary school teacher Stacie Baur in Pennsylvania teaches English to Chinese students via Skype to make ends meet.
JACK GRUBER, USA TODAY
In sunny Miami, bilingual elementary teacher Mari Corugedo has 26 years of experience, a master’s degree and a passion for helping Spanish-speaking students quickly learn English.
Her annual compensation for those skills: $64,000, plus benefits. That doesn’t go far in this popular coastal city, where median rent has shot up to almost $2,000 per month, and the median mortgage is almost $1,300 per month before taxes or insurance, according to the real estate site Zillow.
“We spend a good 30% to 40% of our income on our mortgage,” said Corugedo, 52. “I would have moved out of Miami by now if not for my husband’s additional income.”
Beginner teachers have an even tougher time affording Miami. Skyrocketing housing prices combined with relatively low educator salaries have made the area one of the nation’s priciest cities for starting teachers.
In the first analysis of its kind, USA TODAY examined salaries and housing costs for teachers all over the country.
New teachers can’t afford the median rent almost anywhere in the U.S, the analysis shows — a point often made during recent teacher strikes across the country.
But that’s not the full story.
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Despite widespread demand for higher salaries, teachers in some regions are actually making ends meet, especially as they approach the middle of their careers.
In other areas, mid-career teachers are right to say they can’t afford to live on their salaries without picking up side hustles or commuting long distances. Some of those places are only affordable for the very highest-paid teachers.
And then there are places that no teacher can afford, no matter how much they earn. Like Miami.
“A lot of people who have a passion for education cannot make it as a career,” said Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of the union for teachers in Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
“We have teachers as Uber drivers, Lyft drivers. They certainly love teaching, but they can’t pay their bills with love.”
What does ‘affordable’ mean?
To gauge teachers’ standard of living, USA TODAY looked at salaries in the lowest, middle and highest pay brackets in almost all the nation’s metropolitan areas — cities and their surrounding counties. The data reflect the earnings of teachers in public and private schools, collected as part of a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey released in May 2017.
Areas were deemed affordable if teachers would have to spend no more than 30% of their salaries — after accounting for federal taxes — to afford the local median rent or mortgage. That’s in line with experts’ recommendations for budgeting.
In today’s era of teacher strikes and walkouts, the analysis answers a key question: Can educators in this area afford to live on their take-home pay?
Often, that answer was “no,” because housing costs exceeded 30% of teachers’ salaries after taxes. The reasons why varied. Depending on the community, starting teacher salaries were low, or teachers’ pay didn’t increase much over time, or housing was comparably expensive.
Compounding teachers’ financial troubles are other costs the analysis could not include, like student debt, health insurance contributions and child-care costs.
Starting out, teachers can afford few cities
Beginning teachers, or those in the bottom 10% of the pay scale, can afford to rent a median-priced unit in just 13 of the 291 metro areas analyzed.
The Johnstown, Pennsylvania, metro area is one of them. The former steelworker town about 90 minutes east of Pittsburgh is a distressed city with a low tax base. Around 3,000 students attend schools in the local district; 83% of them are poor.
A starting Johnstown teacher with a bachelor’s degree earns $49,995. Nearby homes are relatively cheap, in part because the city has a number of blighted properties and public-housing complexes. As a result, said Nancy Behe, president of the Johnstown teachers union, many teachers own their homes instead of renting.
Teacher pay varies in the smaller districts nearby. But in one, the starting salary is just $18,500, Behe said, which pulls down pay for the Johnstown metro area in the USA TODAY analysis.
New teachers can also afford to live in Springfield, Ohio. Starting salaries in the school district are currently about $37,000 and rising to $37,789 next year, plus the current contract gives teachers an annual bonus of $1,000, said Kathryn Richison, a longtime Springfield teacher.
Houses in Springfield are affordable, she said. That’s largely because people aren’t clamoring to buy or rent them. Many choose to live instead in nearby Dayton or Columbus for the big-city amenities, Richison said.
How much should teachers be paid?
The average salary of a U.S. teacher was $58,950 in 2016-’17. When adjusted for inflation, that’s slightly less than what the average teacher earned almost two decades ago.
Even when benefits are thrown in, America’s teachers earned 13% less in 2018 than private-sector workers with similar levels of education, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The nonprofit think tank, which receives funding from labor unions, examined decades of federal data.
Growing unrest over low pay sparked teacher walkouts last year in states such as Arizona, Oklahoma and West Virginia. Wages have continued to be at the heart of teacher demonstrations in 2019.
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Meanwhile, education workers are leaving their jobs at the fastest rate on record, according to government data first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
Both political parties have taken note.
Republicans, who trimmed education budgets over the past decade, are starting to pivot. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has announced a $1.6 billion pay hike for teachers. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster approved a state budget that included about $160 million for teacher raises.
Among Democrats running for president, former Vice President Joe Biden has proposed tripling federal money for low-income schools, in part to give teachers raises.
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris from California wants to give the average American teacher a $13,500 raise, or enough to cover the gap between teachers and other college-educated workers. That would cost the federal government about$315 billion over 10 years.
Many mid-career teachers need a side hustle
For now, just under half of the metropolitan areas studied — 135 — are affordable for teachers earning a median wage.
For teachers in the rest of the country, the hustle continues, year after year.
In the Clairton School District in western Pennsylvania, fifth grade teacher Stacie Baur earns about $43,100 per year. Her bachelor’s and master’s degrees saddled her with $130,000 in debt.
For extra income, she rises before 4 a.m. every day to teach children in China how to speak English, via a video feed. Baur earns $10.50 for each 25-minute class. During the week she’ll teach four in a row before rushing to Clairton. On the weekends she teaches 10 classes each day.
Baur and her husband live 25 minutes from Clairton in Pittsburgh because they like the city. Housing in Clairton is cheaper, but they found a great deal on a Pittsburgh apartment for $850 per month.
Baur, 33, doesn’t see herself owning a home or starting a family anytime soon.
“We haven’t been able to save for the down payment yet,” Baur said. “It’s hard to save when things keep getting more expensive.”
These mid-career teachers are still struggling
In some areas, teachers are struggling because their pay doesn’t increase much even as they gain more years of experience.
On average in the metros analyzed, USA TODAY found that elementary school teachers’ salaries grow by $31,322, after taxes, as they moved from the bottom to the top of the pay scale.
But in some metro areas, teachers’ salaries increased far less than that.
In the districts around Enid, Oklahoma — a state where teachers went on strike in 2018 to protest some of the lowest pay in the country — salaries start around $32,000. The top 10% of earners in the largely rural area are only pocketing $48,000 after federal taxes, according to USA TODAY’s analysis.
In Enid Public Schools, salaries ranged from about $38,000 to about $60,000 this past year, according to the state teachers union.
Jennie Scott, an elementary teacher in Enid, said health insurance costs make the area tough to afford. Scott said she paid $200 monthly for family coverage when she taught in Georgia; now it’s $700 monthly out of pocket if she wants to pay for health insurance for the family.
“A lot of teachers I know have insurance for themselves but not their husband and kids,” she said. “They just pray it will work out.”
Salaries in Oklahoma are inching up: Public-school teachers received an average $6,100 pay bump after the walkouts in 2018 and they’ll receive another average $1,220 pay bump this year.
Over on the East Coast, school districts generally pay higher salaries. But housing is more expensive, too.
Ryan Brown, a Bridgeport, Connecticut, middle-school teacher, lives at his parents’ place 45 minutes away because he can’t afford rent in Bridgeport. Before taxes, Brown’s six years of experience earn him about $56,000 a year.
He also spends two nights a week tutoring. That nets him an additional $600 per month, which is helping him pay down $11,000 in student loans.
“Teachers don’t usually make a lot of money out of the gate,” said Brown, 29. “But the steady incline is not as steady as you think.”
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Low pay can be offset by really cheap housing
In rural Texas, teacher Sarah McManus has 12 years of experience and works at a middle school in Henderson, about two hours from Dallas. She only earns $42,000 annually before taxes, but she and her husband, who works in medical billing, can easily afford a home with five bedrooms, two bathrooms and a swimming pool.
They bought the house for about $140,000. The monthly mortgage is only about $1,200, and their property taxes are negligible.
When she lived in Dallas, McManus worked in the gig economy to help supplement her salary as a single teacher. Now she appreciates the affordability of country living, but she still misses some big-city perks.
“I see my students around town every day, and I have a seven-minute commute to school,” McManus said. “But I do miss the mall and the symphony and wearing heels.”
For senior teachers, most metros are affordable
America’s top-earning teachers can afford the median rent in almost all the metro areas USA TODAY studied. Specifically: 249 out of 291.
In New York City’s public schools, teacher salaries range from about $61,000 to about $129,000, according to the specifics of the 2019-2022 contract reported by Chalkbeat, an education news site.
That’s all before taxes. Salaries for teachers in charter and private schools in the NYC metro area can be less.
Partly because of those high-end salaries, a city that’s legendary for expensive apartments is actually affordable for an individual teacher — once he or she reaches the top of the pay scale. Teachers in the top 10% of earners in the New York metro area would need to spend about 28% of their salaries to afford the city’s median rent, according to USA TODAY’s analysis.
Now consider Baltimore. AP statistics teacher Jackie Secor is in her 12th year of teaching in the Baltimore City School District, where she earns about $93,000 in base pay before taxes. The 34-year-old receives a special pay boost for exemplary teachers.
Secor lives just outside the city in a three-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath home that she shares with her husband, an architect, and two kids. Their mortgage is about $2,000 monthly.
Secor said she’s never had trouble affording rent. As a starting teacher, she earned about $43,000 and lived with a roommate. By her fifth or sixth year, she paid $1,100 per month on an apartment for herself.
“Baltimore pays really well, and it’s affordable,” Secor said. “I hear people complain about class size, but not about pay.”
Some metros are too expensive for all teachers
The list of metro areas that are never affordable for teachers is mostly unsurprising. The California tech hubs of San Jose and San Francisco lead the list, along with leisurely, ritzy Napa. Honolulu, Hawaii is up there as well.
Then there’s Miami.
In USA TODAY’S analysis, top-earning elementary teachers around Miami only took home about $58,000 after taxes. With local rent at around $1,900 per month, that means even the highest-paid teachers would spend more than a third of their salaries on housing.
Corugedo, the veteran bilingual teacher, said rising housing prices have driven young teachers out of Miami. It’s a big factor in the district’s teacher shortage, she said.
“A lot of my colleagues have to tutor, work a second job, or do after-school care” for other people’s children, Corugedo said.
The community has started to respond. Miami residents approved a property tax referendum in fall 2018 that put $211 million toward teacher raises. The largest rental company in Miami-Dade County now offers move-in discounts for educators.
Corugedo she said she’s lucky her combined income allows her to afford her house. Her husband has a good job with UPS — a position that didn’t even require a college degree.
“He makes a lot more than I do,” she said.
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.
How we did it
This story caps a school-year focus on the pressures facing American teachers.
To perform the analysis, USA TODAY relied on data from two sources.
Salary figures came from employers who reported to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Statistics Program, as released in May 2017.
Because elementary teachers are the most prevalent, the analysis focused on elementary pay in the 10th, median and 90th percentile in each metro. The survey includes public and private schools.
Other analyses of teacher salaries tend to use a single measure of pay: usually starting teacher salaries or median pay, both of which oversimplify the issue. USA TODAY’s spectrum-of-pay approach based on percentiles was designed to account for the fact that most teachers make more money as they gain years of experience. Similarly, examining pay in metro areas instead of states allowed reporters to differentiate between high- and low-cost areas, even within the same state.
To further account for real-life factors, USA TODAY applied the federal tax rate for single filers to each salary figure to estimate elementary teachers’ take-home pay in each metro.
Next, the analysis aimed to show whether teachers could afford to live on their take-home pay. Their pay was compared with the proprietary Zillow Rental Index from the real estate website. That measure starts with median rents in each metro and applies a three-month moving average while accounting for outlier figures.
The analysis focused on rent prices because mortgage payments can vary dramatically based on local taxes, interest rates and insurance rates. Rental prices were most inclusive of the additional costs that factor into housing.
The 291 metros analyzed were those for which data existed in both the federal salary and Zillow data sets.
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