PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Oregon and Washington are among the states with the worst teacher weekly wage penalty in the U.S., according to a new report.

The Economic Policy Institute collected teacher salaries for each state and compared them to salaries earned by people in other professions that, like teaching, require a college education. The data show that in 2021, the teacher pay penalty hit a new high: Across the nation, teachers earn 23.5% less than comparable college graduates.

A wage penalty is the difference between a prevailing wage and the wage paid to a certain group of employees.

In Oregon and Washington, the pay difference is particularly stark. The report shows that in 2021, Oregonians earned 29.4% less than their college-educated counterparts and Washingtonians earned 29.1% less.

“I was struck at how big the gap is here in Oregon,” said Oregon Sen. Michael Dembrow (D-Portland).

Dembrow, the chair of the Oregon Senate Education Committee, has seen the way teachers’ salaries are affecting recruitment and retention in the field.

With the rising cost of housing and the rising inflation, he said people entering the profession are looking at the starting salary and wondering if it will be enough to allow them to make ends meet.

In Oregon for the 2020-2021 school year, the average salary of a teacher was $68,565, according to the National Education Association. In Washington, it was significantly higher at $79,388.

Dembrow said he’s seen teachers in the Portland metropolitan area choose to commute to Washington to earn a better wage and was surprised to see that even with the higher wages, the pay penalty was almost just as bad in Washington.

Teacher salary isn’t the only factor that needs to be considered when looking at the wage penalty. The wages paid to employees in other careers certainly plays a role. If those average salaries are increasing faster than teacher salaries, the pay gap is going to widen.

Dembrow said the fact that Oregon and Washington’s pay penalties are so similar indicates that college-educated workers in jobs outside teaching must earn significantly more in Washington than Oregon, to make up for the higher wage paid to teachers in Washington.

For decades, teachers in the U.S have earned less than other college graduates. In 1979, teachers earned an average of $1,052 per week, when adjusted for 2021 inflation. That’s 22.9% less than the $1.394 earned by people in other careers that require a college education.

In the mid-1990s, the gap fell to 15.7%, but has been widening quickly since the 2010s.

Schools often offer decent benefits to their teachers to help bridge the gap, but even with those benefits taken into consideration, the Economic Policy Instituted says the compensation penalty was -14.2% in 2021.

“Over time, educators have chosen to put more of their compensation into the benefits side of it. That’s not working anymore,” Dembrow said. “One of the things we have to look at is those starting salaries.”

And that’s exactly what Dembrow said he’s doing. He’s been convening a workgroup for about a year and together they’ve been focusing on three key areas: compensation, recruiting people to the profession, and retention and working conditions.

Together, they’ve realized it’s not just the salary that’s causing the state to bleed educators. Things like substitute teacher shortages, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and political opinions of what’s being taught in the classroom are all piling on additional stress.

“It’s been a long time coming. COVID, as COVID did with so many other things, it was kind of a stress test that we failed. We realized that we were facing declining numbers,” Dembrow said.

He said it’s not just K-12 teachers affected by wages and worker shortages. Instructional assistance, food service workers and bus drivers are also feeling the squeeze.

In the next legislative session, Dembrow is hoping to ignite some changes. He’d like to make it easier for people from other states who have comparable qualifications to be automatically licensed to teach in Oregon. He’d also like to create a fast track for instructional assistants to help them become licensed teachers.

For that, he’s considering ways to help cover the cost of tuition and find time for them to take classes.

“Teachers right now need a lot of love. They need to feel supported. They’re doing such important work and we need to find ways to attract more people into the profession because we need them,” he said.

Salary is another thing he and his committee members are looking at. He wants to raise it for all 197 districts in Oregon, but said the committee isn’t exactly sure how it will go about doing that.

Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill issued the following statement in response to the Economic Policy Institute report on the teacher wage penalty:

Oregon, like other states, is experiencing an educator workforce shortage. Compensation is at least a part of the problem. It is critical that teachers and other educators are compensated appropriately for the work they do. They are highly trained and skilled professionals that bring their heart to work with them every school day. They care for, nourish, and educate our most precious resource: our children.

In Oregon, educator compensation is set through local collective bargaining processes. These occur between local school boards and local educator unions. Teacher salaries are not set at the state level. However, education funding is determined by the Oregon legislature and that funding impacts teacher compensation.

The Economic Policy Institute used two sources of data for its report. Both came from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The study chose to focus on weekly wages to avoid comparisons of weekly hours worked or length of the work year, which is sometimes an issue for teachers who get summers off. The sample was restricted to people who work at least 35 hours per week.