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Lauren Ware Stark is a policy engagement fellow with the Scholars Strategy Network and an assistant professor of education at the University of Maine at Augusta. The opinions and research outlined in this OpEd do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Maine System or any of the author’s institutional affiliations.

Teachers in Maine earn the lowest educator salaries in New England and, when adjusted for cost of living, the fifth-lowest in the nation. They also make 24 percent less than their college-educated peers in other professions, a “teacher pay penalty” that has worsened over time. That is a problem.

Educators play a fundamental role in our society. They create safe spaces for youth to learn and grow, nurturing their unique strengths. They help children navigate the most difficult structural inequalities we face as a nation. And as the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear, teachers don’t just prepare the next generation of doctors, firefighters and scientists. They make it possible for the current generation to do their jobs, too.

If we hope to recruit and retain skilled, compassionate educators for this frontline work, we need to pay them accordingly.

Unfortunately, the current level of investment in teachers is not enough to keep them in the classroom. Teacher resignations have risen sharply in the past five years, fueled by the pandemic and ongoing structural challenges. As reported in the Maine Monitor, the Maine Public Employee Retirement System shows a record 1,311 teachers resigning from their positions in 2022, nearly two times as many as in 2017. Teacher retirements are also rising.

While Maine does not keep track of teacher shortages, district and school leaders have spoken out about the challenges of filling open positions, particularly in rural and high-poverty districts. In my role as a teacher educator, I have worked with these leaders and my peers to implement creative solutions to bring more teachers into the profession. At the University of Maine at Augusta, we have pioneered a residency model that allows educational technicians and emergency-certified teachers to complete their programs while working full time in schools.

But university and district leaders alike know that recruitment isn’t enough; teachers need to be appropriately compensated if they are to stay in the profession. While many superintendents hope to offer a competitive living wage salary to new and current teachers, this will not be fully possible without investment from the state.

Without a significant increase in teacher pay, we can expect the teacher shortage to worsen in years to come. A recent survey by the National Education Association showed that 55 percent of educators are considering quitting or retiring earlier than expected. Similarly, a recent survey by McKinsey & Co. showed that nearly a third of K-12 educators are planning to leave their positions in the next year. Participants in both surveys identified poor compensation and working conditions as their top two reasons for planning to leave their current roles. These findings align with the #TeachMaine plan, as well as educational and economic policy research showing that we can counter the teaching exodus in two major ways: improving working conditions and increasing pay.

Proposals have been floated here and across the country to increase recruitment by lowering the bar for teacher certification. These proposals aren’t backed by research and, as Portland Press Herald editors recently argued, they could worsen educators’ working conditions by furthering the devaluation of the profession. Instead of lowering the bar, we should follow the research and improve pay and working conditions for educators, including teachers and educational technicians.

A new bill put forth by Sen. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, takes an important first step in this direction. LD 1064 outlines a plan to increase the minimum teacher salary in Maine to $50,000 by 2027-2028, with future increases tied to cost of living. This would be a significant step forward in our collective efforts to overcome the “teacher pay penalty” and recruit, train and retain excellent educators.