The nation's education system is "at the doorstep of a crisis" in terms of hiring and retaining teachers, according to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.
Appearing Tuesday morning on CNN, Cardona acknowledged the national fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on having enough teachers to meet the growing demands involving students.
Cardona initially downplayed the situation when asked if the teacher shortage had reached a "crisis level" before saying our nation was on the verge of reaching a crisis point.
"We're at the doorstep of a crisis, and if we don't take it seriously, we're going to be facing what we experienced during the omicron [coronavirus] spread where our teachers didn't have COVID, but they had to quarantine and we had to keep our schools open," Cardona said.
The secretary added: "Look, across the country today, students are preparing, or are going into school for the first day. There's so much promise, so much hope, and I'm excited about this school year. But we have to address this issue head-on. We have to make sure our teachers are getting a competitive salary. Teachers make 20% less than college graduates in other professions."
Cardona's last comment reflects a core component to keeping teachers happy: offering competitive salaries for entry-level hires and providing incentives to experienced teachers who have accrued years of service.
As a prime example of the low salary structure, Cardona mentioned how Montana has an average annual starting salary of approximately $32,000 for public school teachers.
"What are you going to do with that?" Cardona rhetorically asked, before adding that teachers working extra jobs just to stay afloat is "unacceptable."
According to WorldPopulationReview.com, the national average annual salary for K-12 teacher salaries is $64,524.
New York state has the highest average salary for K-12 teachers, at $85,889 per year, according to WPR.
The website also says: "New York's average teacher salary is about 11.5% higher than the average earnings of a full-time, year-round employee. California and Massachusetts follow, with $82,282 and $82,042, respectively."
On the flip side, Mississippi has the lowest average annual teacher salary ($45,574) — a figure that contradicts the Montana one Cardona quoted to CNN — followed by West Virginia ($47,826).
The National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the U.S., estimates that roughly 300,000 teacher and supporting-staff positions will go unfilled this academic year, stemming from either a lack of applicant interest or fewer hiring resources among school districts.
NEA President Rebecca Pringle said that teacher shortages across the country may be more problematic than Cardona is letting on publicly, and the crisis has origins that long predate the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 and 2021.
"We have been sounding the alarm for almost a decade and a half that we have a crisis in the number of students who are going into the teaching profession and the number of teachers who are leaving it," Pringle recently told ABC News.
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