Presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris has a bold plan to increase pay for teachers. The California senator’s $315 billion, 10-year proposal is a timely and sensible policy for a nation that must commit more resources to public school teachers and address inequality in US education. However, Harris’ plan also makes for an astute political strategy for the presidential contender, allowing her to make inroads among core Democratic constituents who represent the energy and direction of the party heading into 2020.
The proposal amounts to an average of $13,500 or a 23% increase in salary for each teacher. The federal government would pay the first 10% to states to fill the teacher pay gap, then invest $3 for every $1 the states contribute. The Harris plan would also invest billions in evidence-based programs to boost teacher development, with half of the funds going to historically black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions, who, research shows, produce 30% of black teachers, and 40% of Latinx teachers.
According to the plan, an increase in the estate tax for the top 1% of US taxpayers would pay for the measure.
The Harris plan is a good policy solution for a crisis in public education. While crucial to our children, teachers do not earn their worth, and many cannot afford to live in the communities they serve. “Teachers are angels among us. They are the people who inspire our children to be powerful citizens and leaders,” Harris said in an email message to supporters and in a post on Medium. “We all know the stories of teachers who spend extra hours after school lifting up students who have fallen behind, or the teachers who spend their own money on much-needed school supplies. Public school teachers earn 11% less than similar professionals, teachers are more likely than non-teachers to work a second job, and the average teacher makes $1,000 less than 30 years ago.”
Teachers suffer as the cost of living increases and teacher salaries fall. In 30 states, teachers do not earn a living wage for a family of four. One million teachers – 40% – are not covered by Social Security. According to the US Department of Education, 94% of public school teachers pay an average of $479 for school supplies without reimbursement, sometimes upwards of $1,000. Americans overwhelmingly believe teachers’ salaries are too low, and many are willing to pay higher taxes to boost their pay.
America must do better by its teachers, as other countries do. The average elementary school teacher in the United States starts out at around $39,000 with a top earning potential of around $70,000, according to Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data. However, elementary school teachers make a top rate far exceeding those numbers in Germany, Switzerland and Luxembourg. And while a US high school teacher begins at $40,517 and may earn up to $70,900, that teacher would earn as much as $84,185 in South Korea, $84,469 in the Netherlands, $109,240 in Switzerland and $138,279 in Luxembourg.
Sen. Harris’ push is also a smart political move, as sliding salaries have fueled teacher strikes across the country for better pay and smaller class sizes. These strikes are ground zero in a new national labor movement, energizing working people after years of union decline. And teachers are front and center in the resistance to education reform – including austerity measures, unregulated charter schools and vouchers that divert money from public education to private schools – and Trump administration policies in general.
Meanwhile, teachers and school profiteers are drawing the battle lines. Under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a billionaire former education lobbyist who has led the push for public school privatization, the White House calls for a cruel and draconian 12%, $7.1 billion cut to the Department of Education. The budget would slash student loans and public service loan forgiveness, school safety and mental health services, after school programs in low-income communities and grants for counselors, equipment and textbooks. The budget increases charter school funding by $60 million, and features an Orwellian-named “education freedom” initiative which would provide $5 billion in tax credits to allow children to attend private school.
Further, as a Howard University alum, Harris’ hat tip to HBCUs and other majority of color institutions reflects an unabashedly black-identified campaign – in contrast to Obama’s run for president. For all the scrutiny she faces over her criminal justice record and whether she is “black enough,” Harris’ policy proposal should appeal strongly to black voters, including black women”[[’; – a crucial Democratic bloc in a nation where demographics and notions of the face of leadership are changing.
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A country should be judged by how it treats its children, and the adults who are charged with educating those children and cultivating young minds. Sen. Harris’ teacher pay raise moves the policy debate in a positive direction, which is great politics, too.