SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Thrusting herself into a labor fight amid a long stream of recent strikes, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris dangled expansive raises for the nation’s teachers Tuesday to be paid for by taxing the rich.
The Democratic presidential candidate unveiled her first major campaign policy package with a proposal to “entirely close the teacher pay gap” through a $315 billion plan funded primarily by raising the federal estate tax. The move reflects Harris’ first major pitch to the nation’s influential teacher unions, which have yet to endorse candidates ahead of the 2020 primary elections.
“We are not paying our teachers their value,” Harris said in a statement. “Teachers should not have to work two or three jobs to pay the bills.”
Under the proposal, the federal government would work with states to set baseline goals for teacher salaries and contribute $3 for every $1 spent by a state until salary targets are met. The first-term senator also wants an immediate federal investment of 10 percent of the plan cost to kickstart the effort.
Harris says the goal is to provide the average teacher with a $13,500 raise over 10 years in what her campaign claims would be the “largest federal investment in teacher pay.”
“This proposal will lift up teachers and families across America, give every American teacher a raise and make a much-needed investment in our country’s future,” Harris said.
Large-scale teacher strikes have happened in places like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Harris’ home state of California. A strike in Oakland, California, ended this month after administrators agreed to 11 percent raises, one-time bonuses and smaller class sizes at high-needs schools.
Securing votes from California teachers will be critical for Harris, as the Golden State has moved its primary up to March in hopes of playing a larger role in the primary process. She says her plan will “fight for every education professional to have the ability to join a union and bargain collectively.”
National unions commended Harris’ campaign announcement and are hoping it will springboard education into the larger political discussion.
“This should be central to the 2020 conversation,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, in a statement. “We applaud Kamala Harris for focusing on attracting and keeping great educators in neighborhood schools!”
Harris justifies the massive spending plan by pointing to a 2018 Economic Policy Institute study that found an 11 percent pay gap between teachers and comparable professionals. It pointed to stagnant wages as reasons for teacher shortages and estimated raises would allow school districts to retain their best and most effective teachers.
Harris’ proposal also dedicates billions to teacher recruitment and training programs, with half of the funding going directly to minority-serving institutions. Harris hopes the funding will boost the number of black, Hispanic and other minority teachers in the educational system.
Wesley Hussey, associate professor of government at California State University, Sacramento, called Harris’ pitch a “smart strategy” that could cut through the noise of a crowded Democratic field.
“It activates teachers and particularly women, which is helpful because teachers are going to vote very heavily in primaries and are brilliantly scattered across every state,” Hussey said in a phone interview. “It’s going to be hard for the unions to not want to endorse her.”
If elected – Harris was third behind former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the latest CNN poll – the Oakland native could have a hard time tinkering with the estate tax: President Donald Trump and Republicans drastically scaled back the tax in 2017.
The “death tax” is levied on heirs who inherit taxable assets that exceed the federal exemption limit. Part of Trump’s 2017 tax reform increased the individual exemption from $5.5 million to $11.18 million.
Critics of the tax claim it contributes to wealth inequity and allows the nation’s top 1 percent to hold on to their wealth in perpetuity.
Hussey downplayed the sticker price of the plan, noting the $315 billion cost would be spread across 10 years. He added it’s likely that as president, Harris would have to scale back her plan to gain ground with Republicans in Congress.
“She knows that it’s not about actually pushing through policy, it’s about getting her name out there and getting through the clutter of the primary season,” Hussey said.