Are Oregon Teachers Underpaid?

By William MacKenzie,

When educators from across the Portland Public Schools (PPS) district’s 81 schools began their strike on Nov. 1, they had a lengthy list of demands, with a focus on teacher salaries.

“As costs have risen here, teachers’ salaries haven’t kept up,” the National Education Association asserted in a news release supporting the PPS strike.

Data suggests, however, that Portland’s teachers were actually doing fairly well in comparison with other teachers across the country, though there is no question inflation has eroded their financial position. The same is true of Oregon teachers in general.

During the strike, PPS said the average salary for a Portland teacher was $87,000; the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) union said it was about $83,000.  Pay can vary widely depending on multiple factors, including amount of education, certifications, additional skills, and the number of years spent in the profession.

PAT also raised concerns about pay for new teachers, with the lowest annual base salary in the district for a teacher with a BA starting at $50,020.

When the strike began, PAT wanted a 23% cost-of-living adjustment over three years; PPS offered about 11%. In the new contract, educators will receive a 14.4% compounded increase over the next three years (6.25% the first year, 4.5% the second and 3% the third) and about half of all educators will also earn a 10.6% bump from yearly step increases.

To get a handle on how all this translates into actual dollars, I asked PPS and PAT for their numbers on the current average and median salaries of educators in the district and what they expect the average and median salaries of teachers will be in the first year of the new contract?

PAT never responded. PPS responded to an initial request with a commitment to provide the data. Repeated follow-ups, however, brought nothing but excuses for the delay. Eventually my entreaties just went into a black hole. So much for public accountability.

In 2018, The Oregonian reported that in 2016-17, the average Oregon teacher made nearly $61,900 a year, higher than the national average of $59,700. Oregon ranked 13th highest for average teacher pay among the 50 states. “Oregon teachers have long been better compensated than most of their peers around the country,” the paper reported.

In 2023, according to the National Education Association (NEA), the average Oregon teacher made $70,402 a year, higher than the national average of $66,745, and again Oregon ranked 13th highest for average teacher pay among the 50 states.

In other words, Oregon has actually been holding its own in average salaries, although the numbers for starting teacher pay are not as favorable for Oregon.

In 2023, the average salary for a starting teacher in Oregon with a bachelor’s degree and no experience was $40,374 (31st in the USwhere the average was $42,844). Under the PPS contract with PAT, the salary for a starting teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no experience in 2023 was $50,020.

Averages, however, can be deceiving. Very high or very low salaries can skew the numbers. Median compensation represents a more accurate picture of how much Portland’s teachers are being paid, but neither PPS nor PAT agreed to provide median salary numbers.

The Oregon Center for Public Policy, a progressive economic research organization, argues that Oregon public school teachers are underpaid by about 22%. Even after accounting for the more generous benefits earned by public school teachers, the Center claims Oregon public school teachers are underpaid by about 9%.

But the analysis is not based on compensation for other teachers. Rather, the Center claims Oregon teachers are underpaid “relative to comparable private-sector workers (in Oregon)…with similar levels of education and experience”.  The claim that public-school teachers endure a salary penalty with this comparison is dubious.

Less dubious was PAT’s assertion before the strike that recent inflation has eroded teachers’ wage gains over time.

In an annual report that ranked and analyzed teacher salaries by state, the NEA estimated that the national average teacher salary for the 2021-22 school year was $66,397 — a 1.7 percent increase from the previous year. But when adjusted for inflation, the average teacher salary actually decreased by an estimated 3.9 percent over the last decade.

In other words, teachers were making $2,179 less, on average, than they did 10 years earlier when the salaries are adjusted for inflation. A similar NEA report issued in 2023 concluded that teachers made on average $3,644 less than they did 10 years ago, adjusted for inflation.

However, comparing over a longer period, the average Oregon teacher’s salary in 1970 was $8,818. Inflation adjusted, that figure would have been $66,509.99 in 2022. In other words, although there has been a decrease in inflation-adjusted pay in recent years, average teacher salaries in Oregon have kept up with inflation over the long term.