Democrats Seeking White House Make Teacher-Friendly Pitches

By Alyson Klein — April 09, 2019 7 min read
Sen. Kamala Harris proposes giving every teacher a raise through a $315 billion federal initiative.
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California Sen. Kamala Harris’ first major policy proposal in her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination: Giving every teacher a raise.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., pitched a universal child care program just weeks after officially declaring her candidacy for president.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., another White House hopeful, envisions a $1 trillion infrastructure package that would include new resources to fix up K-12 schools.

Those proposals seem tailor-made to appeal to teachers. And it’s not hard to figure out why.

Reaching out to this energized demographic could harness the firepower of the #RedForEd movement, a grassroots, teacher-driven movement, which helped boost teacher pay in Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia—and gave a leg-up to some Democratic candidates for state office.

And it could help White House contenders rise above the cacophony of the Democratic field, which includes more than a dozen candidates and counting.

“I think seeing what’s been going on across the country, in Kentucky, in Colorado, in West Virginia, in Oklahoma … that’s who we are. They should be courting us,” said Megan Tuttle, an 8th grade social studies teacher who is serving a three-year term as president of the National Education Association’s New Hampshire affiliate. “I hope they come after us because we’ve been ignored and we’re finally standing up and saying, ‘This is who we are, and we’re professionals and we want to be treated as such.’

“And we vote. That’s the thing, we can get out the vote.”

Early Pitch

Harris’ proposal is perhaps the splashiest pitch so far to cope with the teacher pay gap. Teachers make some $13,500 less than similarly educated professionals, according to Harris’ campaign. Harris, a freshman senator and former state attorney general, is promising to fix that by the end of her first term in the White House through a $315 billion initiative that would include some state matching funds.

Harris’ decision to come out with a big proposal on teacher pay right out of the gate is a signal that teachers are going to be targeted for special outreach, said Lisette Partelow, the senior director of K-12 strategic initiatives at the Center for American Progress Action fund, which works on behalf of progressive candidates.

“I think the fact that some of these proposals are coming out so early in the campaign shows that they are a very high priority for candidates,” said Partelow, who provided background information to the Harris campaign on teacher pay and would do so for other candidates interested in the issue. “And the proposals are really big markers for what progressives should stand for when they say they support increases in teacher pay and bigger investments in K-12 education. It’s pretty exciting.”

Harris isn’t the only candidate thinking about teacher pay. At a recent event in Iowa, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey called for helping teachers by retiring their college debt, investing more in special education, and reworking the tax system so that teachers owe less, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Lesser-known Democratic presidential candidates have also highlighted the issue on their websites.

Andrew Yang, a businessman who helped found start-ups, says he wants to work with states to raise teachers’ salaries. Marianne Williamson, an author, promises new investments in teacher training, early-childhood education, and more.

And former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland touts his support for expanding prekindergarten.

Beyond School

While such proposals are welcome, educators want more from candidates, teachers say.

“One of the major things that we are looking for is someone who understands it’s not just about our teacher pay,” said Kelley Fisher, a kindergarten teacher in Arizona’s Deer Valley school district, who has been active in her state’s #RedForEd movement. She’d love to see the candidates talk more about repairing school infrastructure or helping districts purchase high-quality curriculum. “We’re looking for somebody who wants to put the money back in our students so that we have everything they need to be successful.”

Tuttle also wants to see candidates talking about mental-health supports, a huge area of need in New Hampshire.

Sen. Cory Booker wants to help teachers retire college debt; backs more special education funding.

But candidates may end up promising things for schools on the campaign trail that they can’t deliver if they get elected, including higher teacher pay. The federal government just doesn’t have that much control over education policy and spending, said Marguerite Roza, a research professor at Georgetown University.

“If you’re a presidential candidate you are thinking of a federal solution, and public education hasn’t been a federal responsibility, it’s a state and local responsibility,” she said. “It’s sort of on the margins for the feds.”

Even if they don’t have a specific proposal in mind, candidates have rushed to embrace the #RedforEd movement rhetorically before even announcing their candidacies. In a speech to the American Federation of Teachers in July, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., praised educators for being part of a “political revolution.”

At a recent campaign event, Warren answered a question about her K-12 policy goals by highlighting her own background as a special education teacher. She said it would be “pretty fabulous” to have a “schoolteacher in the White House,” and pledged to seek more funding for schools.

And during the Los Angeles teachers’ strike in January, Harris, Sanders, and Warren all cheered educators on Twitter for standing up for their students.

Teachers as Allies

It didn’t always seem politically smart to cozy up to teachers, said Jeffrey Henig, the director of the politics and education program at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“It is different at least from recent election cycles where there was this concern about being seen as in the pocket of the teachers’ unions. That’s been ameliorated,” he said. “Teachers [are] more sympathetic allies, and that makes it a little bit easier for candidates to portray teachers as underpaid and underappreciated.”

For a long time, many voters assumed teachers were protected from economic downturns because of their union membership, Henig said. That’s shifted with growing awareness of how low teachers’ salaries are in parts of the country, thanks in large part to last year’s protests, he said.

Candidates are still shopping for the endorsements of the NEA, a 3 million-member union, and the AFT, a 1.7 million-member union. Such endorsements bring campaign cash and, more importantly, volunteer muscle.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants to create a universal child care program.

Both unions have had a tough time in the endorsement game in recent presidential elections. Back in 2008, AFT picked then-Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary contest, and NEA didn’t choose a favorite candidate in the primary. They both watched as then-Sen. Barack Obama clinched the nomination without their help. He went on to champion policies they hated, including teacher evaluations linked to test scores and getting rid of teachers at low-performing schools.

In 2016, the unions tried to head off a rerun of the Obama years by backing Hillary Clinton heavily and early. That backfired when many of their members were outraged that Sanders didn’t receive more consideration.

This time around, the AFT has outlined an extensive endorsement process that will include candidate questionnaires, focus groups with members, social media forums, and more.

NEA is still in the early stages of evaluating candidates. The union hasn’t officially outlined its endorsement process, but it will involve a questionnaire to candidates, video interviews, and a lot of outreach to members on what they want to hear from the candidates, said Carrie Pugh, the NEA’s political director. She said the union saw “increased activism” in the most recent midterm election. That’s on pace to continue in the primary, she added.

Molly Blankenstein, a 2nd grade teacher at Hayshire Elementary in York, Pa., doesn’t have a long history of political activism, but volunteered for Clinton’s campaign in 2016, in part because she feared a President Donald Trump.

Two years later, she’s determined to make him a one-term president. She likes a lot of what she’s hearing from Democratic contenders, but she doesn’t have a clear favorite yet.

“I don’t know who I would go door-to-door for,” Blankenstein said. But once she figures it out, “I will definitely volunteer, I will definitely get involved. I feel like what I did last time wasn’t enough.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 2019 edition of Education Week as Democrats Seeking White House Make Teacher-Friendly Pitches

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