Calling the issue of underpaid teachers a “crisis” with “disastrous consequences,” Sen. Kamala Harris, the California Democrat who is running for president, says she wants to increase the average teacher’s salary in the United States by $13,500.
That would represent an average 23 percent increase in base pay — and cost the federal government some $315 billion over 10 years. It’s goal: To “entirely” close what Harris calls the “teacher pay gap” — the difference between what teachers are paid and what those with comparable college degrees and experience are paid.
The plan is the most ambitious one announced by any presidential candidate perhaps in American history. and raised questions about whether it would intrude on the principle of local control in education, as well as whether it is sufficiently targeted to address the subject areas and grade levels where recruiting and retaining teachers is most acute.
Setting salaries has historically been a state or district function. However, if elected president, Harris would assign the U.S. Department of Education to work with each state education agency to set a base salary “goal” for beginning teachers in that state. The goal would be to get teacher salaries equal to those earned by “similarly educated professionals”
The plan will be paid for by increasing the estate tax on the top 1 percent of taxpayers and eliminating loopholes that “let the very wealthiest, with estates worth multiple millions or billions of dollars, avoid paying their fair share,” she wrote in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post.
It would also provide a 3 to 1 federal match to state contributions to narrowing the wage gap.
“Paying teachers for the full value of their work isn’t just a good strategy to improve education,” Harris wrote. “It’s central to building an economy that works for working people.”
Harris provided more details for her plan after announcing it in a speech at Texas Southern University over the weekend. It was informed by a series of studies, most recently one issued in September 2018 by the progressive Economic Policy Institute, which documented the slide of teacher salaries over the past several decades compared to other college graduates with similar credentials and experience.
“This is one of the most thoughtful initiatives we have seen in years,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who enthusiastically embraced the proposal. The AFT has about 1.5 million members. “Crucially the plan will supplement, not supplant, state funding, and will reward states for increased investment.”
Weingarten noted that 25 states still spend less on education than they did before the recession. Many of these states have since passed tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the wealthy, without restoring funds for education.
The National Education Association, with about 3 million members, said it “applauds Sen. Harris for focusing on attracting and keeping great educators in neighborhood schools,” and that it looked forward to a “robust debate” on these issues among presidential candidates. But it also emphasized that the organization is “in the nascent stages of evaluating 2020 presidential candidates and praise for any candidate’s proposal should not be seen as an endorsement of that candidate.”
Stanford University professor emeritus Michael Kirst, who stepped down as president of the State Board of Education last December after serving eight years in that role, said that the Harris plan represented “a major shift in conception of the federal role in education.”
Harris’ plan, Kirst said, is “bold” and tackles a “legitimate issue.”But he said it involves providing what is regarded as general aid to states and school districts, albeit in the form of underwriting teacher pay. The last time a president made such a proposal was in 1961, when President Kennedy proposed sweeping elementary and secondary education legislation to fund school construction and teacher salaries — which Congress rejected.
President Johnson then figured out how to get congressional approval for his landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 by targeting federal aid to specific student needs. That was principally in the form of Title 1 funds for low-income children.
Kirst, a scholar of federal education policies over many decades, expressed some skepticism that Congress would approve a funding plan that wasn’t targeted at specific student needs. “Congress has never passed a general aid bill for school finance,” he said. ”Large federal programs are tied to categorical student groups, and salaries have always been considered a form of federal general aid in the past.”
Harris envisages her plan being phased in over time. The federal government would provide the first 10 percent of the funding needed to close the pay gap. Then states would be encouraged, although not required, to contribute. To give them an incentive to do so, each $1 from state coffers would be matched by $3 from the federal government. The matching would continue “until the teacher pay gap is entirely closed by the end of Harris’ first term,” according to the campaign document.
The plan also calls for giving teachers who work in the nation’s “highest need” schools a higher salary boost so that their salaries were even higher than those of comparable graduates in their state. That, Harris’ campaign says, will “reduce teacher turnover, attract talented recent college graduates, as well as experienced teachers.”
On top of teacher pay, the plan also calls for “multi-billion dollar investments” to underwrite programs to support school principals and schools administrators. That would include establishing “residencies” for prospective teachers and principals, which typically consists of spending a school year being mentored by experienced educators.
Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Research and Data at the University of Washington, commended Harris for proposing to give an extra salary boost to teachers serving high proportions of low-income students. He said the plan would be more effective if the funds were more focused on teachers of subject areas suffering from the greatest shortages, such as special education and science and math, rather than giving all teachers an equal bump in salaries.
He also said raises should be targeted because in many states there is no shortage of elementary school teachers, so giving a salary hike as an incentive for more of them to enter the profession would not be the best use of state or federal funds.
“It would be smarter to spend the money in more targeted ways,” he said. “It doesn’t tackle what is an acute problem for some schools and in some subject areas, it will be a solution that is a mile wide and an inch deep,” said Goldhaber, who was a co-author on a report for the Getting Down to Facts project on teacher shortages in California.
Harris’ idea to have the federal government work with states to set base salary levels also raised questions on the extent to which it would intrude on local control of schools. Some states do set statewide salary schedules, especially in Southern states like North Carolina. California, on the other hand, does not. Salary levels are established district by district, based on collective bargaining.
“California leaves salaries to collective bargaining, so this bill would be a major intrusion into local control,” Kirst said.