Teacher Pay Emerges As Democratic Primary Issue

Beto O'Rourke
Beto O’Rourke campaigns in Manchester, N.H.

Call it the teacher primary.

Over the weekend, one Democratic presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, called for federal spending to lift teacher pay so that it’s level with that of other college graduates.

“In America, public school teachers are paid about $13,000 a year less than other college graduates. That could be mortgage payments or the cost of groceries for a family for a year. It’s a national failure. It’s time we give America’s teachers a raise,” Harris said on Twitter.

Sunday, Harris posted video of herself campaigning in Houston, Texas: “We are not paying our teachers their value…. I’m meeting teachers everywhere, guys, who are working two, sometimes three jobs to be able to pay the bills, and because over 90% of them are coming out of their own pocket to pay for school supplies. That ain’t right.”

If Harris is the first candidate to make headlines out of the issue, she certainly isn’t the only one who has been talking about it.

Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman from Texas, campaigned in Portsmouth, N.H. last week and said that teachers in his state spend an average of $800 to $1,000 a year “for the decorations in the classroom, the school supplies for kids who don’t have them.”

At his next campaign stop, in Manchester, N.H., O’Rourke said, “We want to guarantee that no schoolteacher works a second or a third job.”

“Why, why in this country are we asking schoolteachers and educators and cafeteria workers and nurses and librarians and therapists to work a second or third job to finance their calling of being in front of those kids, the most important job, unlocking their lifelong love of learning, so that they can reach their potential?” O’Rourke asked. “Why do we ask teachers who in Texas on average take 800 bucks out of their own pocket not just to decorate the classroom or buy supplies for the kid who has none, but also to pay for a warm meal for that child on free and reduced breakfast and lunch who does not have a dinner at home waiting for her, or a new set of clothes for the kid who has shown up in the same set of clothes every single day? I just want her, I want him to have that one job, focusing on those children.”

“Let’s invest in those public school educators so they just have that one job and can afford to keep it,” he said.

He also spoke of freeing teachers from “high stakes, high pressure standardized tests,” and of wiping clean student loan debt for teachers so that they can “focus on those kids.” And he emphasized the importance of diversity: “Let’s recruit and retain teachers who look like the students in their classroom.”

O’Rourke said his own three children go to “world-class public schools” where they learn math in both English and Spanish. He said he wanted to “move the starting line back” by assuring every 4-year-old access to pre-kindergarten, and also to “make cost no barrier to advancement after high school.”

This wasn’t a special event at a school, or a speech to a teachers’ union convention. It was just a standard midday campaign stop at a Mexican restaurant.

And it’s not even particularly unusual on the Democratic campaign trail. The previous month, I’d seen Senator Elizabeth Warren kick off her own presidential campaign by talking about her own past as a public school teacher. “I have one dream in life, I want to be a public school teacher,” she recounted to a Dover, N.H. audience. “Can we hear it for public schools?”

Asked at the Dover event by a public school teacher what to do about charter schools “taking” money “from public schools,” Warren responded, “great question,” and replied “we’ve got to be willing to spend money.”

“As a nation, we should be doing universal preschool,” Warren said, promising, “I’m gonna be there with you, teacher to teacher.”

What’s this all about?

There are a lot of teachers, and they are politically active within the Democratic Party. One published report indicates that in 2012, “16.4% of all Democratic Party National Convention delegates were teachers union members.”

The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, who faced criticism from her union’s liberal faction over its early endorsement of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary, has laid out an elaborate process for determining the union’s 2020 choice, including a candidate questionnaire, tech-driven national town halls, and engagement with AFT members at live events. Weingarten herself reportedly met recently with O’Rourke, and her Twitter feed prominently features items about Warren and Harris addressing teacher issues.

Interest group politics are as American as New Hampshire Mexican food.

It bears mentioning, too, that even some center-right voices on the education policy seem to be coming around recently to the idea that maybe public school teachers should be paid more money, so long as the pay increases are linked to increases in teacher quality, performance, and accountability.

That is one idea that has so far gone unspoken on the 2020 presidential campaign trail, at least so far. Without such conditionality, the idea of a raise for teachers may face a general-election collision with the electorate. There are, after all, plenty of taxpayers who work second and third jobs without getting summers or school vacation weeks off, taxpayer-voters with health and pension benefits less generous than the ones earned by union teachers. These voters might not turn out so much at Democratic primary campaign events, but they do emerge in November. And they elect not only a president, but the Congress that, at least in the absence of a Trump-border-wall style national emergency declaration, would have to approve any federal expenditure aimed at raising teacher pay.

The 2018 Education Next poll, conducted after a series of nationally publicized teacher strikes had closed schools in six states, found that public support for teacher pay raises had increased compared to the year before, but even so, it’s hardly a slam-dunk issue. Among the general public, 49% of respondents who were informed about how much teachers in their states currently earn said they support an increase.

For the federal government to give teachers an appreciable raise could be costly. There are about 3.2 million public school teachers. Adding enough to their pay to close the $13,000 gap cited by Harris would mean spending an additional $41.6 billion each year, which would roughly double existing federal spending on K to 12 education. Chalkbeat reported the Harris campaign estimated the federal share of the cost of its plan at $315 billion over 10 years, and that it would involve a three-to-one match of federal dollars for state dollars, paid for by raising the estate tax and “cracking down on loopholes.”

The issue has been a live one in presidential politics back to at least 1960, when, in the first of their televised debates, Richard Nixon and John Kennedy both said they were for increased teacher pay, though Nixon was reluctant about a federal role, warning, “once you put the responsibility on the federal government for paying a portion of teachers’ salaries, your local communities and your states are not going to meet the responsibility as much as they should.” Kennedy had addressed the issue in his opening statement, saying, “I’m not satisfied when many of our teachers are inadequately paid.”

That presidential candidates are talking about the same issue nearly 60 years later does suggest that the issue has a certain enduring political appeal. It’s not that there’s been no progress; in constant dollars, average teacher pay did rise to $58,950 in 2015-2016 from $41,251 in 1959-1960, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, amid a broader expansion of federal education spending. But teacher pay hasn’t kept pace with that of other college graduates and has been flat for the past two decades. Perhaps the political appeal of the issue is too weak or too narrow. Whatever the reason, sixty years of talk has yet to fully persuade voters outside the Democratic base that paying teachers a lot more, in the absence of other reforms, is a good use of taxpayer money.

Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.

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