U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, D-Calif., at a fundraiser hosted by the Iowa Asian and Latino Coalition at Jasper Winery in Des Moines, Iowa on 8/10/19.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

Democratic U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Kamala Harris of California recently promoted her campaign’s teacher pay raise plan.

On Monday she tweeted, “Our teacher pay plan would give the average public school teacher a $13,500 raise. In many places, that’s about a year’s worth of mortgage payments. Money for groceries. A significant dent in student loan debt. It’s time we invested in our teachers like they’ve invested in us.”

An additional $13,500 would provide a welcome boost to many family budgets no doubt, but it raises some questions.

Exactly how bad is the teacher pay gap?

Harris argues, “The United States is facing a teacher pay crisis. Public school teachers earn 11 percent less than similarly educated professionals. Teachers are more likely than non-teachers to work a second job. Ninety-four percent of teachers are paying out of pocket for school supplies. In 30 states, average teacher pay is less than the living wage for a family of four.”

Are we making an apples to apples comparison here? She says teachers earn 11 percent less than similarly educated professionals. What does that mean? First, I’m not sure where Harris gets that statistic because she doesn’t cite the source. Second, does she mean workers with bachelor’s degrees? Third, the spectrum of jobs requiring bachelor’s degrees is broad. Fourth, how does the employer make its money? Does she think public schools, funded with taxpayer money, can compete with companies who make a profit and, in many cases, have a leaner staff? Does this statement include the insurance and pension benefits that many in the private sector do not have? Fifth, does she take into account that teachers, when you consider all of the breaks schools get, have, on average, 2 1/2 months off every year?

Teachers may make less than some professions in the for-profit sector, but they make more than similarly educated workers in the nonprofit sector. When I was a youth pastor, I wished I received the same pay as teachers in the school district where I lived.

Harris then said, “Teachers are more likely than non-teachers to work a second job.”

Compared to who? How many of those non-teachers have to work overtime? How many have schedules that do not allow taking on a second job? Do non-teachers have two-and-a-half months off to work a summer job?

She then adds, “In 30 states, average teacher pay is less than the living wage for a family of four.”

This statistic is also misleading. Many starting teachers, who make less money, don’t have children yet. Does the “living wage” for a family of our include one or two working adults? Considering just as teacher salaries vary by individual school districts and states, so does the cost of living.

Also, the factors that determine a “living wage” can vary as childcare is a significant factor that determines a living wage. The living wage for a family of two adults and two children with one working adult requires a lower living wage than the same-size family with two working adults.

Housing, another factor, can also vary within the same state depending on where a person lives, whether they rent or own, live in an apartment or a house.

Teachers paying for classroom supplies out of pocket, I believe, is a problem and schools should reimburse teachers or pay for these supplies directly provided the expenses are reasonable.

Is teacher pay a local, state, or federal problem?

Harris writes, “The teacher pay gap is a national failure that demands a bold, national response.”

Does it though?

As I’ve mentioned, teacher pay varies by state, and even within a state, it can vary widely by district.

“The Department of Education will work with state education agencies to set a base salary goal for beginning teachers in every state. The goal will account for the average salary earned by similarly educated professionals in the state starting out their careers. It will also increase based on years in the classroom and advanced qualifications to keep up with higher wages earned by similarly experienced professionals. Under our plan, states and school districts will increase every teacher’s salary until, at a minimum, they meet the goal,” Harris states.

Most school districts already have a step and level pay scale that accounts for years of experience and education. Something that Harris does not acknowledge and this is something many other professions don’t have.

Basing this on the “11 percent gap” as I mentioned before is problematic because it is not an apples to apples comparison.

Also, like President Obama, Harris wants to incentivize states through federal dollars to accomplish federal goals.

There is no federal constitutional interest in teachers pay.

Teacher pay is a local school district and state issue. School finance is overly complicated and can impede raising teacher pay. Harris’ plan does not address potential wasteful spending that, if eliminated, could open up funds to increase teacher salary. For instance, half of all school employees are not classroom teachers. Is that necessary? Could school districts make adjustments there? Should we have a local conversation about what schools do beyond education that contributes to that?

School districts can and we should.

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