When I watched my students in Thornton carry their diplomas across the stage as graduates, they also carried the pride and hope of their families who had loved and sacrificed to get them there.
Unseen on that stage were the teachers whose love, and patience carried those students day by day for years, in the hard moments and the happy ones, so those students might someday carry the country forward along with the lessons they’d learned.
For my kids, like so many others, outside of our own family, their teachers are the most important adults in their lives.
Teachers inspire students to discover new worlds, develop new talents. They’re the first shoulder to cry on when something falls apart and the first hug when hard work pays off in a big success.
It’s why my kids were happy to join me in standing with teachers in Denver when they decided to strike for better pay earlier this year. It’s why I have spent the last decade fighting to increase teacher compensation, from fighting for a $1 billion funding increase for our schools to sponsoring the Student Success Act.
As a former teacher and principal, and as an education advisor to President Obama, this is personal to me.
And it’s why the commitment to pay teachers more is not just a policy issue – it’s a moral issue.
But we have not done enough. If we don’t take action now to raise wages for teachers, we will lose a generation of great teachers simply because they can’t live the lives they’ve dreamed of on current teachers’ wages.
Teachers in this country earn 11 percent less than those with similar skills in other professions. This hurts young teachers and makes recruiting teachers and keeping them a challenge, especially as higher-paying fields are recruiting more and more women and people of color.
The impact is clear: growing teacher shortages, high levels of turnover and teachers who stay in the field for a few years but then leave because their salary is too low to raise children or buy a home.
Our poorer and rural districts are especially hard-hit. STEM and bilingual teaching roles are especially hard to refill. And students are robbed of teachers of color, who are proven to help students of color perform better.
That’s why I’m calling for a $40,000 minimum wage for every teacher, a $10,000 raise for every teacher, and a $20,000 bonus every five years for teachers and principals working in our highest-need schools.
Ensuring a $40,000 starting salary will recruit more great minds and hearts to our classrooms, and the $10,000 raise I’m proposing will help retain them.
We will also help keep top talent in the lowest-income areas by establishing a $20,000 refundable tax credit for every five years teachers and principals spend in the highest-need classrooms in America. All teachers should be celebrated and compensated well, but those who teach young people with the greatest needs will receive additional compensation for their especially rigorous work.
Some will say we can’t afford this. But budgets are a statement of values and there is no greater priority than making sure every child has access to a good teacher.
And better yet, we can pay for this entire program by closing tax loopholes that make it easier for the rich to hide income in offshore tax havens and other scams, and by better enforcing tax compliance.
The math is simple: Teachers are the single most important variable in a student’s academic success. Our investment in them is a direct investment in the next generation of American leadership – and the time to act is now, because each generation of young Americans that crosses a graduation stage will be expected to carry us and carry forward the promise of our democracy.
Teachers make that possible and we should pay them accordingly.
Mike Johnston is a former teacher, principal and state senator who is now a candidate for U.S. Senate. He lives in northeast Denver.