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Inside Kamala Harris' plan to raise teacher salaries

Posted at 9:54 AM, Mar 26, 2019

Over the weekend in Houston, Sen. Kamala Harris unveiled her first major policy proposal as a presidential candidate, pledging to boost teacher pay.

Introducing a bold campaign promise -- aimed squarely at women and people of color, her target zone for voters -- the California Democrat pledged to make the largest federal investment in history toward teacher salaries, which would close the wage gap between teachers and similar professionals, by the end of her first term.

According to a CNN review of the policy proposal, released by the campaign Tuesday morning, Harris has pledged to provide teachers with an average raise of $13,500, which would amount to a 23% average increase in salary.

The plan would cost approximately $315 billion over 10 years, according to the outline of the policy.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, emphasized she believed that governors would be hard-pressed to turn their backs on federal funding, given the number of teacher strikes the country has seen in recent months from coast to coast.

"There are schools in every single county and community in America. Governors would turn their back on funding in their schools? There would be consequences for that sort of action," Weingarten said.

The proposal outlines how the financial benchmarks of the plan would be reached. The federal government would provide the first 10% of funding needed, and states would be incentivized to close the remainder of the teacher pay gap. For every dollar a state contributed toward increasing a teacher's salary, the federal government would invest $3.

Pressed on whether the plan is practical, Catherine Brown, a senior fellow for the Center for American Progress, told CNN, "It's kind of like Medicaid expansion, in the sense that states would have a very strong incentive."

Still, such a model could face resistance from the states. While the Affordable Care Act made it possible for states to receive federal money to pay for adding people to Medicaid, the program for low-income Americans, 14 states have resisted.

"It's a good point," Brown told CNN. "She's recognizing that this is a national problem that demands a national solution, and I'm not sure she is saying this will be enacted overnight or a panacea, but she's putting a solution on the table."

In addition to universally raising teacher salaries to close the wage gap, Harris' plan intends to make additional targeted investments toward public schools that are most in need, which disproportionately serve students of color. The plan would also support programs dedicated to teacher recruitment, training and professional development, particularly at historically black colleges and universities.

Aligning with unionized teachers and historically black colleges and universities, the Harris campaign has indicated its intention to shift from the traditional Democratic base of the Midwestern union worker and focus on those hit hardest by the teacher wage gap: women and people of color.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, public school teachers earn 11% less than those of similar professions with college degrees and are more likely than non-teachers to work second jobs.

This wage gap is even greater for women and people of color. According to the Center for American Progress, female teachers earn on average $2,000 less per year than male teachers and African-American teachers on average earn $2,700 less per year than white teachers.

With teachers now at the front and center of her campaign, Harris has tapped into an energized and organized group of voters who have already proved to be a political force on this issue by striking across the country.

"This is going to be as important in the upper Midwest as Oakland, California, because it's investing in our future," Weingarten said. "This is an issue in all communities. It is a woman's issue. It affects people of color. These issues of education and health care are front and center in this election."

Jotina Buck, an African-American woman who teaches third-grade math and science at North Belt Elementary School in Humble, Texas, was in the audience listening to Harris' policy rollout in Houston.

"As a teacher it means a lot," Buck told CNN. "To be honored in pay would be a great opportunity for us as teachers. And I think it would encourage future teachers to choose teaching as a career."