Editor’s Note: Kamala Harris is one of 10 presidential candidates taking part in a Democratic debate at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday, July 31, on CNN. Ten others debated on Tuesday evening. Harris is the junior US Senator for California. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN.
Out on the campaign trail, voters often ask me about the people in my life who made it possible for me to stand in front of them as a candidate for President of the United States. I tell them about two women who were central to making me who I am today. The first is my mother, Shymala. She was all of five feet tall but if you ever met her you would have thought she was seven feet tall. She was a wonderful mother and a force to be reckoned with. She instilled in me and my sister, a deep sense of responsibility to advocate for the voiceless and vulnerable and to always fight for justice.
The second person is Mrs. Frances Wilson. She was my first grade teacher at Thousand Oaks Elementary School in Berkeley, California. Mrs. Wilson instilled a sense of hope and courage within me during the formative years of my life and believed in me every step of the way.
So many of us have had that one teacher who made a profound impact on our lives, who looked at us and convinced us we were special. Maybe we weren’t particularly special, but they convinced us we were and we believed them. Those teachers are all across America.
When I announced my first major policy proposal of this campaign – to give every public school teacher in America a raise – I thought of Mrs. Wilson and the countless other teachers across our country who inspire, teach and mold our future.
Because let’s speak the truth, there are two groups of people who are raising our children: parents – often with the help of grandparents and aunties and uncles – and our teachers. But the reality is that with each passing year, the teachers who are raising our nation’s children are being forced to do more with less. We all know the stories of teachers who spend money out of their own pockets on much-needed school supplies, or the teachers who spend extra hours after school lifting up students who have fallen behind. I’ll never forget the time in South Carolina when I met an educator who looked up from her table while working her part-time job at a restaurant and realized there were three other educators working there with her.
In America today, according to the Economic Policy Institute, public school teachers earn over 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.
This isn’t right. Every child deserves a world-class education, regardless of their ZIP code, and of all in-school factors that impact their success, there’s nothing more important than teachers. But we’re not acting like it.
The teacher pay gap is a national failure that deserves a bold national response. That’s why I laid out a plan to make the largest investment in teachers in American history, giving the average teacher a $13,500 raise.
Under my plan, the federal government will immediately make an investment to raise teacher pay in every state. Then we will incentivize states to step up: For every $1 a state contributes to increasing pay, the federal government will invest $3 until the teacher pay gap is entirely closed by the end of my first term. And we will go even further for communities most in need by making an additional targeted investment in America’s highest-need schools, which disproportionately serve students of color. My plan will also include a multi-billion dollar investment in evidence-based programs that elevate the teaching profession.
My teacher pay plan is about more than just salary. It’s about valuing and respecting teachers for the professionals they are. It’s about making an investment that will yield big returns for our country and lay the foundation for our future economy. It’s about guaranteeing the opportunity for every child to succeed.
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Many years after I finished the first grade, I walked up onto the stage to receive my law school diploma and when I looked out into the audience I saw Mrs. Francis Wilson smiling back at me. She was there to cheer me on just as she always had. I carry her lessons with me every day — as I became a district attorney, attorney general, a senator, and a candidate for president of the United States. When I stand up on that debate stage on Wednesday, Mrs. Wilson won’t be in the audience, but the lessons she taught and the confidence she instilled will be with me, and for that I’m forever grateful.