As a matter of politics, it may be brilliant. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) is rolling out her second big policy initiative (the first a major tax revamp with what amounts to a vast expansion of the earned-income tax credit, allowing some workers to get an extra $500 per month). She proposes to close the “teacher pay gap.” (For those old enough, remember the Cold War “missile gap”?) The Associated Press reports:
She pledged by the end of her first term to close a pay gap that Harris said currently amounts to teachers making about $13,000 a year less than other college graduates. . . .
Harris’ campaign is citing a study from the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute that found that what’s called the “teacher pay penalty” — the difference in compensation for teachers and comparable public workers — is larger than ever. The Economic Policy Institute study puts the teacher compensation penalty at a record-high 11.1 percent in 2017.
Harris, a U.S. senator from California, plans to release more details of the plan next week, but she said her proposal will amount to the largest federal investment in teacher pay in American history. It was not immediately clear how much money Harris is calling to be diverted to educators’ pay or how the plan will be funded, but she told a packed gymnasium at Texas Southern University that the cost shouldn’t be the question.
The reason this is rather brilliant politics has to do with numbers, but not the ones Harris cites.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of the fall of 2018, 50.7 million children attended public school. Consider that one or two parents/voters usually go with each student. Then consider: “Public school systems will employ about 3.2 million full-time-equivalent (FTE) teachers in fall 2018.” Some of those teachers are also parents with children in public schools, but it’s safe to say more than 50 million Americans live in a household with a public school student and/or teacher. That’s a very big pool of voters who would stand to benefit from Harris’s proposal, whatever you think of the merits.
And this is not just a blue-state issue. We’ve seen teacher strikes in red states, including Arizona, West Virginia and Oklahoma, as well as purple Colorado have all had teacher strikes in the past year or so. And no one thinks we’ve seen the last of them. With each new strike, Harris can now be there to encourage teachers and promise more pay if she is elected. That’s a whole lot of earned TV.
As for the merits, we’ll wait to hear how much money Harris is talking about, the mechanism for delivering it and where (is this quaint?) the money is going to come from. There are arguments that this is a state issue, not a federal one (although the federal government sends nearly $16 billion to schools currently, for example, to fund Title I programs serving low-income students). One can argue there are other ways to improve education.
Those arguments are not likely to get thrown at her by fellow Democrats in a Democratic primary, however. Virtually all of them (and millions upon millions of other Americans) think teachers are underpaid.
First with her tax plan and now with her teacher pay plan, Harris has done something most of the other contenders have not — put out a select number of readily understandable plans that go to perceived economic inequality and Republican support of the rich at the expense of everyone else.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has put out so many plans with so many specifics she risks diminishing the impact of any single one. Most of the other candidates haven’t put out anything concrete. (Taking a position isn’t the same as proposing a concrete plan, especially if the position is to align with a nebulous idea such as the Green New Deal.)
It’s unclear whether Harris’s tax plan or her teacher plan will change voters’ minds. However, she will distinguish herself from her competitors, have a response when voters or the press say candidates’ aren’t offering specifics, and appeal to core Democratic voters. That should tell you at least one thing: She’s a skilled candidate.