Sen. Kamala Harris says federal government must step in to close the ‘teacher pay gap’

March 25, 2019

U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks to her supporters at the official launch rally for her presidential campaign in front of Oakland City Hall at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza on Jan. 27, 2019.

At a time when state legislatures are coming under increasing pressure to increase funding for education, presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., has come up with a different approach: Have the federal government allocate funds to close the gap between what teachers and other comparable college graduates earn.

“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,” Harris said in a speech at Texas Southern University in Houston on Saturday. “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.”

Following teacher strikes in Oakland and Los Angeles, teachers have been promised pay increases — in Los Angeles 6 percent over two years and in Oakland 11 percent over four years — but those will still almost certainly not boost teacher salaries, especially those of beginning teachers, to cover the escalating costs of living, especially housing, in those districts.

Harris did not say how her proposal, which she said would represent the largest federal investment in teacher pay ever, would be paid for. But anticipating the obvious question, Harris said, “People are going to say, ‘Well, how’s she gonna pay for it?’ Well, here’s the thing. You understand that your analysis is not how much does it cost. The question is what’s the return on the investment. And on this, the investment will be our future.”

According to her campaign, Harris’ proposal was informed by a report issued last September by the progressive Economic Policy Institute, in collaboration with UC Berkeley’s Center for Wage and Employment Dynamics. It was written by Lawrence Mishel, a distinguished fellow at the Economic Policy Institute and UC Berkeley economist Sylvia Allegretto that showed a startling widening of what they called the teacher “wage penalty” over the past several decades.

Their research showed that the mid-1990s marked the start “of a period of sharply eroding teacher pay and an escalating teacher pay penalty.”

On average, teachers in 2017 earned just 76.2 cents on the dollar compared with what other college graduates earn, they found. What’s more, there is no state where teacher pay is equal to or better than that of other college graduates.

The wage gap varies tremendously by state. According to the researcher’s calculations, teachers in California earn 15 percent less than comparable college graduates in the state. In Arizona the gap in 2017 was 36.4 percent.

Allegretto said that even though the wage gap in California is narrower than most other states, “it is a huge gap.”

“If someone told you tomorrow you were going to get paid 15 percent less than other workers with similar qualifications, you wouldn’t be happy,” she said, noting that California’s gap was still about half of what it is in the states with the largest gaps. Arizona tops the list, followed by North Carolina, Oklahoma, Colorado — all states where there were massive strikes and the so-called “RedforEd” movement gained ground.

What’s more, the 15 percent figure is an average that does not take into account the high costs of living in several of the state’s major metropolitan areas. In those areas, college-educated workers in other professions, especially in tech, are paid far more than teachers and the wage gap is likely to be higher than 15 percent.

The federal government only provides just under 10 percent of education funding in California. Traditionally those funds have been for programs like Title 1 funding for low-income children, school nutrition and special education, and not for teacher salaries. But there is a recent precedent during the Great Recession in which the federal government provided massive education funding to underwrite teaching and other education jobs.

Beginning in 2011, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act sent close to $100 billion to states for education spending, much of it going to avert teacher layoffs. A 2012 report from the Center for Education Policy concluded that “the ARRA largely met its primary purpose of saving or creating K-12 teaching and other education-related jobs.”

Allegretto said that the wage gap that Harris’ proposal is intended to address helps explain the teacher shortages being experienced in every state. “To pick a career where you will fall farther and farther behind, compared to what other professions you could pursue, will make it hard for young students to choose a teaching career path,” she said. “There should be a lot of thought as to what role the federal government should play.”

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