District Trendline

Pay increases and other non-obscure strategies to address the substitute teacher shortage

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In spite of nationwide concerns about a "great resignation" and overall shortage of workers, there is much yet unknown about the extent of these shortages in the teacher workforce. Unfortunately, there continues to be a dearth of published data to better understand this problem (or for that matter, any issues regarding teacher supply and demand). One thing is clear: districts desperately need substitutes. A recent study by the Center for Education Data & Research (CEDR) collected job posting data for the state of Washington and found that among all teaching positions, the largest number of unfilled positions in the Fall of 2021 was for substitute teachers.

In mid-December 2021, Secretary of Education Cardona wrote a letter in which he encouraged district leaders to use their American Rescue Plan funds to "recruit and train high-quality substitute teachers." Many school districts had already taken that initiative. In the Fall of 2020, for example, Billings Public Schools (MT) had increased their starting substitute daily rate by 67%!

This District Trendline looks at substitute pay increases during the pandemic in 150 large school districts across the country, as well as other strategies that these districts are using to attract substitute teachers in the midst of a widespread shortage.

Substitute teacher pay

Since NCTQ's last analysis of substitute earnings in September 2020, the average starting pay for substitute teachers in the districts in our sample increased from $13 to $15.50 per hour (adjusted for regional price differences), an increase of almost 20%. This increase stems from two sources: districts that implemented a pay raise for their substitute teachers and districts with newly defined substitute teacher pay policies.

Some of this pay raise is largely driven by districts that were at the bottom of the substitute pay distribution last time around, as the lowest starting substitute teacher pay has increased from $8.07 to $9.14 (adjusted for regional price differences).

Oklahoma City and Tulsa (OK) stand out for their significant increase of what were previously some of the lowest substitute teacher pay rates in the country: their starting rate for substitute teachers increased by 73% and 50% respectively, which now places both districts right around the median of the distribution.

The 20% increase in the average starting salaries is also driven by some of the districts in our sample that had not previously specified a district-wide policy for substitute pay but which have recently done so, all setting rates above the median. Defining pay and making it publicly available is likely to be another strategy to attract substitute teachers, who are more likely to apply for positions if they know beforehand the pay they will receive–provided such pay is attractive enough. Cincinnati and Columbus (OH) are two such districts: they have recently defined their substitute pay policy after years of not doing so, and have set rates at $15.54 and $16.80 respectively, equivalent to $16.63 and $17.83 per hour when adjusted for regional price differences.

Eighty-nine out of the 150 districts in our sample gave their substitute teachers some kind of pay raise during the pandemic. Not counting newly defined substitute salary policy, the average pay raise for substitute teachers in the districts in our sample was 18.5%, an unprecedented increase over the 10 years that NCTQ has been analyzing substitute teacher pay.

In addition to Tulsa and Oklahoma City (OK) mentioned above, other districts providing large increases in pay include Douglas County (CO), Austin ISD (TX), Billings (MT), and Fulton County (GA), all of which increased substitute teacher pay by 50% or more during the pandemic.

Cypress Fairbanks ISD (TX) stands out for what appears to be a reduction in substitute teacher pay, contrary to the trend observed in most other districts, accompanying a relaxation of its substitute teacher education requirements. The district now includes a "non-degreed" short-term substitute category with starting pay of $84/day, or about 9% lower than the former starting salary of $92/day for "degreed" short term substitutes. Aside from this addition, all substitute pay rates in Cypress Fairbanks remained unchanged this year.

Fulton County (GA), Jefferson County (KY), and Omaha (NE) are noteworthy not only for higher than average increases in substitute teacher pay, but for also offering some of the highest substitute pay (greater than $20/hour in actual dollars, or about $22/hour in adjusted dollars) in localities where the cost of living is below the national average, which gives substitute teaching in those districts a boost in terms of relative salary competitiveness.

Education requirements and health benefits

In spite of widespread substitute shortages, only 18 of the 150 districts in our sample lowered their substitute teacher education requirements. In 11 of these districts, this decision was concurrent with a decision to increase substitute teacher pay. Most notably, Douglas County (CO) and Montgomery County (MD) increased their substitute teacher pay by 50% and 30% respectively, while also decreasing education requirements. While both districts previously required a bachelor's degree, Douglas County now only requires a high school degree and Montgomery County an associate's degree.

The seven other districts opted for a reduction in substitute teacher education requirements instead of raising pay. In most of these instances, the relaxation of education requirements consisted of only a moderate reduction in the number of college credits (or equivalent) required to qualify as a substitute teacher.

Perhaps the biggest declines in education requirements have happened at the state level. Both Missouri and Kansas previously required a minimum of 60 college credits for substitutes, but now require only a high school diploma. In Kansas, the reduction is a temporary measure set to expire on June 1, 2022.

A less prevalent strategy deployed by districts, but one which might have a greater impact than even these substantial raises, was to make substitute teachers eligible for health benefits. Only another five out of 74 districts that had not previously defined health benefits for substitute teachers have done so during the pandemic: Baltimore City (MD), Burlington (VT), Denver (CO), Red Clay (DE), and Virginia Beach (VA). The first three districts offer health benefits to long-term or full-time substitutes only. Cleveland (OH) reduced the time after which a substitute teacher becomes eligible for health benefits from 120 days in the preceding year to 61 days in the current year.

Perhaps one of the most surprising moves was taken by Des Moines Public Schools (IA) which eliminated their health benefits eligibility policy for substitute teachers altogether. The district did increase substitute teacher pay by 11% and offered a $500 bonus after working three days per week for eight weeks.


The reasons behind the substitute teacher shortage likely run much deeper than pay, education requirements, or health insurance. However, considering that the median salary for individuals with only a high school diploma stands at around $20/hour, it is also likely that low wages – and the absence of health benefits in the midst of a pandemic – did not make for an attractive package.

School districts seem to have acknowledged the need to make substitute teaching more attractive, and most of them have increased wages that in many cases sat frozen for years. Still nearly a quarter of the districts in our sample have not increased substitute teacher pay during the pandemic years, and most of these pay wages below the median. Another 14% have not even defined substitute teacher pay policy nor posted the available pay in job advertisements.

Overall, school districts would do well to consider:

1) Evaluating the competitiveness of their substitute teacher pay; in particular taking into account the cost of living of their locality. 

2) Offering some type of health coverage to substitute teachers who consistently serve the district, in order to provide a safety net to substitute teachers with health concerns related to in person teaching.

3) Defining substitute pay policy and making the pay explicit in job advertisements, as salary is the element of a job posting most sought out by job seekers.

View the custom report on these district policies in NCTQ's Teacher Contract Database.

This piece was updated on 1/25/2022 to reflect recent increases in substitute teacher pay for Shelby County Schools, Tennessee.