District Trendline

Are your substitute teachers getting paid more at Walmart?

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Districts nationally are struggling to build strong pools of substitute teachers. Yet in 40% of the large districts we analyzed, entry-level substitute teachers are paid less than what they would earn hourly if they worked in retail.

In this District Trendline, we first look at substitute teacher salaries compared to salaries in the retail industry for 148935 of the largest school districts in the U.S. to explore whether people can make more as substitutes than in their "next best option." Then we examine two strategies that districts are using to increase the potential supply of substitute teachers: increasing pay and lowering education requirements.

The landscape of substitute teacher salaries
According to our most recent data collection, the average starting wage for substitute teachers in the districts in our sample for the last school year available (2022-2023) was $18.40 per hour,936 adjusted for cost of living.937 The starting wage ranged from $9.82 in Alpine School District (UT) to $41.67 in Oakland Unified School District (CA). Twelve districts do not specify substitute teacher salaries.

Competing for substitute teachers with other industries
Several studies suggest that when the economy is strong, more teachers leave the public education system.938 The pool of people that qualifies for most substitute teacher jobs makes up the same pool that qualifies for, and could be attracted to, jobs in a rapidly recovering retail industry. Indeed, news of teachers leaving their jobs to go work at Walmart or Costco has made recent headlines.

We analyzed whether substitute teacher wages can compete with retail jobs—what we considered the "next best option" to working as substitutes in schools. We compared the starting substitute hourly pay for each district with the average local hourly pay for retail workers.939 On an hourly basis, our analysis shows that in 40% of the districts in our sample, substitutes are paid less than they would be if they worked in an average retail job in their community (an average difference of about $2/hr). In the other 60%, an entry-level substitute teacher makes more than if they worked in retail (on average $5/hr more).

Figure 1
For substitute teachers with higher qualifications or longer term assignments, we found that in 124 (84%) of the districts in our sample, a substitute on the high end of the district's substitute pay scale would make more by teaching than in the average retail job—nearly $10/hr more on average. This means substitutes are better off when they come in with teaching credentials or are part of the permanent substitute pool in a given district or school. But in 12 districts (8% of our sample), substitutes with higher credentials or longer term assignments would still make less than the average retail job in their community (nearly $2/hr less).

However, with some of the preparation required to access the higher level of substitute pay, some of these candidates may be eligible for higher-level retail positions. So to further contrast their options, we also compared the highest generally available substitute pay to the 90th percentile of nonsupervisory retail workers. We found that in 85 (57%) of the districts in our sample, the best paid substitute teachers would make about $7/hr more than a highly paid retail sales position, but in 51 other districts with substitute pay data (35%), even the best paid substitute teachers could be making more money in a highly paid retail sales position (about $4/hr more).

Figure 2

Pay as a strategy to attract substitute teachers
When we last looked at substitute pay in January 2022, the average district in our sample paid substitutes $15.50 per hour, adjusted for cost of living, which means that starting substitute teacher wages have increased by 19% in about a year. However, 80% of the districts in our sample offer entry-level substitute teachers a salary below what is considered a "living wage" in the U.S.: $25/hr.

Figure 3

To attract substitute teachers to harder-to-staff positions, some districts offer different types of bonuses. San Francisco Unified School District (CA) offers cash bonuses for substitute teachers who work more than 60 days in a semester. Others like Henrico County Public Schools (VA) and Knox County Schools (TN) offer higher pay rates for substitute teachers who teach on Fridays. Districts such as Jefferson County Public Schools (KY) and North East Independent School District (TX) allocate extra pay for special education substitutes, and others like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (NC) designate additional pay for substitutes in Title I schools.940

Substitute teachers with more advanced credentials (advanced degrees, retired teachers coming back to substitute, or substitutes who are certified to teach) tend to receive higher pay rates, although in many cases these are still very low wages. Depending on their location, the highest available pay for substitute teachers (as opposed to the average pay mentioned above) ranges from $11 to $50 per hour, not including hard-to-staff bonuses. If someone who qualifies for the highest tier of substitute pay were to substitute teach every single school day for a full school year, they would take home somewhere between $16,000 and $67,000 in a year.941 (See Figure 4.) In a third of those districts, that annual salary would lie below the poverty line for a family of four, set at $30,000.

Figure 4

Overall, however, districts often offer higher starting pay when they set higher minimum education requirements, as shown in Figure 5. On average, districts that require a minimum of a bachelor's degree in order to substitute-teach will pay $7/hr more than those that require only a high school diploma.

Figure 5

Minimum education requirements

A high school diploma is the lowest and the most prevalent requirement for substitute teachers within our sample of 148 large districts, with 40% of the districts requiring only that level of education in order to serve as a substitute teacher. Just 30% of districts require at least some college coursework.

Figure 6

To gain access to a larger pool of substitute teachers, some districts continue to lower their substitute teacher education requirements. Over the last two years, 41 districts have lowered their education requirements for people to substitute. Of note, Fort Wayne Community Schools (IN) has lowered its substitute teacher education requirements twice in the last four years: in 2019, from a bachelor's degree to 60 hours of college coursework, and this year, dropping to only a high school diploma or GED.

Too little, too late?
Overall, the strategy used by many districts to woo substitutes appears to be either to lower education requirements or increase pay: 16% of districts in our sample have lowered requirements, 80% have increased pay, and 13% have done both.

Not only are districts increasing substitute pay, but also they are using pay strategically to attract substitutes to hard-to-staff areas and schools, or even to work on certain days of the week.

The benefits of lowering education requirements are not as clear cut. While lowering standards for entry might increase the potential substitute pool, it is not just about greater numbers. Quality matters. Everyone benefits from having an experienced, consistent substitute pool. Substitutes have an easier time as they become better versed in running a classroom; students are likely to learn more from more experienced substitutes; and teachers can keep their preparation periods rather than being asked to cover their absent colleagues' classes.

Our last look at teacher attendance showed that the average teacher was absent about nine days in the school year, and that rate was likely much higher during the pandemic. It is important for districts to ensure that learning continues during those absences; paying substitutes better can help, but it's not enough. To build a strong pool of substitute teachers, districts need to pay them better than their next best option.