Democratic Presidential Candidates Are Promising To Raise Teacher Pay. Teachers Are Skeptical.

A raise would be great. But is it realistic?
Illustration: HuffPost; Photos: Getty

Philadelphia public school teacher Kathryn Sundeen would love a raise. Last year, she spent about $3,000 out of pocket on her students, helping to pay for their supplies and fees associated with the debate team she coaches. But when she hears the Democrats running for president talk about giving her one, she’s suspicious.

“It feels like a superficial way of getting to the root of the problem,” said Sundeen, a 20-year classroom veteran, of the problems plaguing public education.

In the lead-up to the 2020 election, big-ticket candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) have all made teacher pay a centerpiece of their proposed education plans.

Harris has released the most detailed plan, with an explicit explanation of how she would work to use both federal and state dollars to give the average teacher a raise of $13,500. Biden has said he will triple funding for Title I ― the program that gives federal dollars to schools serving mostly low-income students ― and require some of this funding to be used for teacher pay increases. Sanders has said he will work with states to set a minimum base salary for teachers of $60,000. Former Rep. Beto O’ Rourke (Texas) has called for the creation of a fund that would help incentivize states and districts to raise teacher pay.

When the candidates speak of these plans on the campaign trail, they’re greeted with cheers and applause. But in conversations with teachers, the reaction is more mixed. HuffPost spoke with a dozen educators from around the country on the issue.

Some teachers’ reactions ranged from unabashedly excited ― one educator even said Harris’ plan on this issue helped make her one of his favorite candidates ― to cautiously optimistic. But several educators said they are also skeptical of the politicians’ plans, wondering if proposed pay increases represent a political talking point rather than a realistic proposition.

It sounds great, but I think we’ve had promises before that haven’t been kept,” said Fred Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers for West Virginia. “We want to hear the how, how are you going to do it. I think that codifies the promise … teachers are paying attention.”

Sundeen said that, for now, she’s rooting for Elizabeth Warren (Mass.). Warren has not proposed pay increases for educators, which Sundeen views as a “good sign.”

Arizona teachers march through downtown Phoenix on their way to the State Capitol as part of a rally for the #REDforED movement on April 26, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona.
Arizona teachers march through downtown Phoenix on their way to the State Capitol as part of a rally for the #REDforED movement on April 26, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona.
Ralph Freso via Getty Images

“She’s not trying to say the things that will get her votes, she’s trying to make lasting substantive change,” said Sundeen, who attended a May town hall with Warren hosted by American Federation of Teachers. Sen. Harris, on the other hand, “keeps hammering this rise in teacher pay thing. It feels like something she’s doing because she wants the teachers union to support her.”

Sundeen, of course, is still happy to hear any candidate discussing the importance of educators. Even if the rhetoric fails to produce any tangible gains, it sends a signal about national priorities to the public. But Sundeen hopes to hear candidates engaging in a deeper conversation about education funding and inequities.

It’s a view shared by educators from Arizona to Michigan.

Theresa Ratti, an Arizona educator, pays about $600 a month in student loans. Help with that would be just as meaningful to her as a raise. It might feel more plausible, too. Ratti used to teach government ― she now works with struggling students ― and suspects that candidates are counting on people not understanding the limits of the federal branch. Education is primarily a state and local issue. Seventeen states currently have statewide salary schedules that guarantee minimum pay based on experience, but most compensation decisions are made at the district level. In general ― without referencing specific candidates’ plans ― she questions how federal intervention would work logistically. She hopes politicians could get creative to make it work.

“That’s what some people are banking on, that teachers don’t know the way things are supposed to go. So they hear, ‘Oh, you’re going to get a raise,’ and of course everybody’s excited, we’d all like a raise. But if you know about the federal system and its structure you know it’s not realistic,” said Ratti, who has been teaching for 30 years.

National lip service is important though, especially in a place like Arizona, where teachers have been fighting tooth and nail for more resources.

In 2018, Arizona teachers held a six-day strike to fight for increased education funding and pay raises. In the end, the governor passed a plan that would give districts enough funds to help teachers get an average pay raise of 20 percent, and injected more funds into schools. Around the country, teacher walkouts in places like West Virginia, Los Angeles, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Colorado have led to gains in recent years. In many of those protests, teacher pay was at the top of the agenda.

It’s the actions of those teachers that helped put this issue on the map nationally. That in and of itself feels like a victory. And might be reason enough to remain hopeful.

Matt Kaufman, a Kentucky teacher who ran for the state senate after educator walkouts in his state, said he finds politicians’ rhetoric on this issue “comforting,” and says he remains a “realistic optimist.”

He says he has seen a sea change in how educators approach the issues that impact them.

“What myself and a lot of my colleagues have realized ― we took a lot of things for granted. We thought if we voted, it would be enough, that education wouldn’t get gutted,” he said. “We’ve come to the conclusion: Our democracy only works for us if we work for it.”

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