We must acknowledge this simple truth: We are a country that claims to care about education, but not so much about the education of other people’s children. At the most fundamental level, our children are being raised by two groups of people: families and teachers. Yet, we fail to pay teachers their value.
The U.S. is facing a teacher pay crisis. Public schoolteachers earn 11 percent less than professionals with similar educations. Teachers are more likely than non-teachers to work a second job. In 30 states, average teacher pay is less than the living wage for a family of four.
Strikes by teachers in West Virginia; Oklahoma; Los Angeles; Oakland, Calif.; and Denver underscore the fact that this crisis is not bound by region or ideology. Instead, they reflect our national failure to value educators and pay them what they deserve.
This isn’t right. Inside our schools, nothing is more important to the success of a child than a teacher. For me, that was my first-grade teacher, Francis Wilson. She helped spark my love for learning and became a lifelong mentor and friend. She attended my law school graduation.
There are Wilsons all across this country, teachers who livestream bedtime stories for their students, who spend their own money to get the supplies they need to teach, and who sacrifice their safety during all-too-common school shootings.
The “pay gap” between what teachers earn and what people with similar educations earn is creating disastrous consequences. Teachers are leaving their dream jobs because they can’t make ends meet. Bright college graduates are not choosing this path of service because they need to pay their student loans. Rural schools are unable to fill teaching vacancies while urban schools struggle with high rates of turnover.
After decades of underinvestment in public education, U.S. students rank behind their peers in other countries, particularly in science and math. Research has shown that education may be the biggest determinant of national growth, yet the U.S. has the largest teacher pay gap of any developed country in the world.
This is a national failure that demands a bold, national response.
As president, I will make the largest federal investment in teacher pay in U.S. history. We will fully close the teacher pay gap during my first term, and provide the average teacher a $13,500 raise.
Here’s how it will work:
Under my plan, the federal government will immediately make an investment in every state to provide the first 10 percent of funding needed to close the teacher pay gap. Then we will support states to do their part: For every $1 a state contributes to increasing teacher pay, the federal government will invest $3, until we fully close the teacher pay gap. States will be required to maintain their investment over time, and increase that amount to cover their share of wage inflation.
We will go further for communities most in need. We will begin to tackle decades of systemic educational inequality by making an additional investment in the nation’s neediest schools, which disproportionately serve students of color, so that teachers there will be paid more than other comparable professionals in their state. We will help these schools reduce high rates of teacher turnover, attract talented young graduates and experienced educators, and improve teaching and learning conditions for our kids.
The plan will also include a multibillion-dollar investment in evidence-based programs that elevate the teaching profession. Half of this funding would be dedicated to historically black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions, because more than 30 percent of all black teachers, and more than 40 percent of all Hispanic teachers, graduate from those schools.
We will pay for this plan by increasing the estate tax for the top 1 percent of taxpayers and cracking down on loopholes that let the very wealthiest, with estates worth multiple millions or billions of dollars, avoid paying their fair share.
Paying teachers for the full value of their work isn’t just a good strategy to improve education — it’s central to building an economy that works for working people. Research shows that attracting and retaining more great teachers would improve student performance, increase graduation rates and lead to higher future earnings for our kids.
When President Lyndon Johnson made a major investment in education in 1965, he told the country that it was to “bridge the gap between helplessness and hope.” Fifty-four years later, this gap remains — but I am determined to keep building that bridge as president.
Kamala D. Harris represents California in the Senate and is running for the Democratic presidential nomination.