Almost half of all K-12 teachers quit teaching within five years. Those who quit are disproportionately teachers in two of the most critical areas: English or science. Moreover, they quit soonest and most often in high-poverty and urban schools, which can be a kind of code for "schools where students aren’t white."

But neither the federal government nor most state governments have convincingly answered the simple question of why this occurs.

Is It “All About the Benjamins?”

Most Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, think teachers are underpaid. There’s a substantial amount of objective evidence that this they are. The middle-of-the road Economic Policy Institute, for example, notes that teachers’ salaries have been falling behind for at least 20 years.

By 2017, a teaching professional earned on average about 19% less than a similarly qualified professional in all other fields. Another indicator of low teaching salaries is that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, K-12 teachers are about 30% more likely than other college graduates to work a second job.

This doesn’t have to do with summertime jobs, when most schools are in recess. In fact, more teachers hold second jobs in January and February and, overall, they’re three times more likely to hold down a second job than similarly educated professionals.

In 2019, almost half of all K-12 teachers said they’re looking for a different kind of job. So, while there are other problems and dissatisfactions related to the exodus of teachers from their profession, inadequate pay is certainly one of the most important reasons.

The Movement to Oppose Salary Increases for Teachers

It would be wrong to think this view of teachers as underpaid is shared by an influential, politically active, conservative minority. Decidedly, they do not.

Warren Meyer, writing in Forbes, explains, typically, that, first of all, teachers only have to work nine months a year. If they were paid only 75% of what similarly qualified professionals receive, they’d be getting everything they deserve. In fact, most conservative think tanks argue that teachers are actually paid too much.

Another argument by conservative activists is that while teachers may be paid less than similarly educated professionals, this is because they’re generally less capable — the venerable "those that can, do; those that can’t, teach" argument.

There are several reasons, some quite complex, for this broad disagreement between conservatives, many of them in state government, and the rest of the country, where 77% of Democrats and 55% of Republicans think teachers aren’t paid enough.

Conservatives vs. Unions

A given among conservatives is that unions aren’t a positive force in American life. For several decades, conservatives have devoted considerable amounts of time and money to getting rid of them. In this effort, they’ve largely been successful.

Union membership has declined steadily since the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 while the number of "right to work" states has increased steadily over the same period. In 2019, about half of all states have one or more laws restricting unionization.

Significantly, the largest remaining U.S. unions, and probably the ones most active in opposing "right to work”" laws, are teacher’s unions.

So one way to look at the drive to keep down teacher’s salaries is that, like it or not, teachers have become the poster children for what Maria Syms, Arizona's conservative assistant attorney general, calls "a national socialist revolution."

There’s no indication that this hostility on the right toward teachers and especially their union is going away anytime soon. From this perspective, keeping down teachers’ salaries is nearly a moral obligation.

While a wave of teacher resignations and strikes in 2018-19 may pressure state governments to improve matters to some degree, the fact remains that many state governments are controlled by conservative Republicans whose base agrees that keeping costs down by resisting raises for teachers is the right way to go. The most likely scenario is that teachers will continue to be underpaid in at least the near future.

Where the Problem Begins

Consider the following:

In this context, the persistence of conservative politicians in opposing raises for teachers that a majority of Americans want isn’t just an instance of conservative politicians no longer responding to a majority of voters.

Progressive Democrats have similarly energized initiatives to do away with private health insurance and have made numerous proposals to make reparations for slavery despite the fact that a majority of Americans oppose both actions. And the Trump administration has removed billions of dollars from the congressionally approved military budget to expand a wall that most voters oppose.

These instances, and dozens more like them indicate a governance problem that goes beyond a single party. In July 2019, The New York Times published the results of their extensive and detailed study of the relationship between what voters want and how politicians act. What they found was "that for most politicians, voters’ views carry almost no weight at all."

The underlying problem for teachers is that, for reasons going far beyond the scope of this short article, politicians often feel their political survival doesn’t depend upon the approval of a majority of voters, but upon the continued approval and financial support of a highly activated and partisan base.

In this instance, conservative opposition to increased state government spending and a hostility to unionization has harmed students and driven qualified teachers out of the profession. But in another instance, progressive politicians may act on a similar indifference to what the majority of voters want. The teacher crisis is only one instance of a growing problem for U.S. democracy generally.