Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) released the details of her plan to drastically increase teachers’ pay around the country on Tuesday, saying the proposal would result in a raise of $13,500, a 23 percent increase in base pay, for the average teacher.
The plan, which Harris’ presidential campaign said would be the largest federal investment in teacher pay in U.S. history, comes after a year of strikes in both red and blue states that forced the issue of teachers’ working conditions into the national spotlight.
By raising the pay of teachers nationally, the Democratic presidential candidate hopes to reduce teacher turnover, attract talent to the field, address gender and race disparities in the profession, and increase economic opportunity for millions of American children, according to one campaign aide.
“It’s an absolutely critical investment,” said Catherine Brown, a senior fellow focusing on K-12 education at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “By paying teachers so little relative to their peers, we are signaling this is not an important profession ― when it’s actually an essential profession.”
Elementary and secondary school teachers made an average of $58,950 nationwide in the 2016-2017 academic year, ranging from a low of $42,925 in Mississippi to a high of $79,637 in New York state, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s too low, say Americans of all political persuasions. Last year, a poll by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that almost 90 percent of Democrats, 78 percent of independents and 66 percent of Republicans thought teachers were underpaid.
Under Harris’ plan, the details of which were provided to HuffPost, the Department of Education would work with states to set a base salary goal, which would vary by state depending on how much professionals with similar educational levels make there at the beginning of their careers. That pay level would then increase based on tenure and additional qualifications to keep up with the pay levels of people in comparable fields.
Much of the funding for the pay increases would be provided by the federal government, with incentives for states to contribute their own dollars. But states and school districts would not be allowed to divert existing education funding away from students to help finance these plans.
Harris first revealed her broad plan to erase the 11-percent pay gap between teachers and college-educated Americans in similar fields at a Saturday campaign event in Houston, where she called the current situation a “crisis” that must be fixed.
“I’m declaring to you that by the end of my first term, we will have improved teachers’ salaries so that we close the pay gap,” the California senator said at the event. “Because right now, teachers are making over 10 percent less than other college-educated graduates and that gap is about $13,000 a year. And I am pledging to you that through the federal resources that are available, we will close that gap.”
The Harris campaign expects the plan to cost roughly $315 billion over 10 years, which the campaign aide said would be paid for by closing tax loopholes favoring the wealthiest Americans and beefing up the federal estate tax. According to the aide, the federal government would immediately make an investment that would take care of the first 10 percent of the gap. After that, the federal government would provide $3 for every dollar a state dedicated to increasing teacher pay. States would have to maintain their share of that investment going forward to continue receiving the federal funds.
In Houston on Saturday, Harris pre-empted questions about the cost of such a proposal by arguing that a massive increase in teacher pay should be seen as an investment that will benefit American children and the American economy
“People are going to say, you’re going to hear them say after today, ‘Well, how’s she gonna pay for it?’ Well, here’s the thing,” Harris said. “The question is what’s the return on the investment. And on this, the investment will be our future.”
The plan also seeks to address issues of teacher diversity by making additional targeted investments in disadvantaged schools, where teachers of color often work. More funds would also be provided to teacher preparation programs at historically black colleges and universities.
More than 80 percent of teachers are white, even though more than half of the nation’s schoolchildren are people of color. But studies show that teachers of color play an essential role in helping to close the achievement gap between different groups of students. Black students who have just one black teacher by third grade are 13 percent more likely to go to college than those who have none.
Harris and other Democratic presidential candidates are vying for the support of the nation’s two major teachers unions.
Last week, one of those two unions, the American Federation of Teachers, announced its complex endorsement process, which will involve surveys, focus groups and town hall meetings. Presidential candidates will also be invited to shadow a teacher for a day to better understand the issues facing education. The union has 1.7 million members.
Both unions praised the plan on Monday night in statements.
“Sen. Harris’ intervention spells out the clear choice faced by all 2020 candidates: whether to invest new resources, or revert to the failed top-down, test-and-punish mentality of decades past,” said a statement from AFT President Randi Weingarten. “We hope other 2020 candidates will follow Sen. Harris’ lead.”
Over the last year, teacher strikes have roiled red and blue states, highlighting educational working conditions around the country. Most recently, in Harris’ home state of California, teachers held walkouts in both Los Angeles and Oakland.
In the case of Los Angeles ― a strike that involved more than 30,000 teachers ― pay was only a peripheral issue. Teachers instead focused on increasing classroom resources and limiting the expansion of charter schools. But in Oakland, teacher pay was at the forefront, and educators secured an 11 percent raise.
Harris voiced support for both of those strikes at the time.
Brown, the CAP senior fellow, said that the U.S. has undergone a “chronic disinvestment” in public education over the last decade, especially in states with Republican governors and legislatures, which has resulted in lower teacher pay.
According to data compiled by the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, public school teachers now make $1,000 less than they did 30 years ago when adjusted for inflation and $3,000 less than they did in 2009.
The consequence of that de facto pay cut is clear. Today, teachers are 30 percent more likely than others to work a second job, and the number of college freshmen planning to enter the field is at a 45-year low.
“The direct result of reducing teacher pay is to make the teaching profession less attractive,” Brown said. “It’s a national problem that demands a national solution.”