As 2020 frontrunner Elizabeth Warren joins 32,500 Chicago teachers striking for better working conditions today, questions are arising about the details of her plan to raise teacher salaries. As a teacher who has spent my career fighting Washington’s corporate standardized testing and teacher evaluation agenda, I am over-the-moon to see Warren become the last Democratic presidential candidate to release a K-12 education plan. However, in this brief analysis of the education plans from all 19 Democratic presidential candidates, it is notable that Warren’s position on raising teacher salaries lacks the clarity offered by other top-tier candidates, Senators Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris:
- Public Education: All candidates polling in the top 10 talk about strengthening public education as a central priority, a reverse from President Barack Obama’s investment in charter schools.
- Charter Schools: Sanders and Warren are the only top-10 candidate to mention charter schools, criticizing the negative effect unregulated charter schools have on public education. Many candidates, including Cory Booker and Joe Biden, don’t mention charter schools even though they were supporters of the school model within the last few years.
- Community Schools: The top three polling candidates (Warren, Biden, and Sanders) all have specific plans for how to increase wrap-around supports for children and families living in poverty through the community schools model.
- Grow Your Own Teachers: Warren is the only candidate to commit to investment in the Grow Your Own Teachers programs, which gives community members working as support staff in schools a pipeline to become full-time teachers.
- Teacher Pay: Every single top-10 candidate says America needs to give teachers a raise. Only Sanders and Harris provide specifics, Sanders setting a floor of $60K (a policy I designed) and Harris giving teachers an average raise of $13,500.
Warren’s commitment to raising teacher pay, though a step in the right direction, isn’t enough. Just saying teacher salaries should increase is a sound bite for applause and social media reactions, but sorely misses how deeply felt and broadly damaging the teacher pay problem is. American teachers are making 4.5% less than they were 10 years ago and have seen a $30 decrease in weekly pay compared to the $124 raise given to other American college graduates, all the while operating within a system that overworks and disrespects teachers with test-based evaluations and scripted curriculum.
Warren’s plan is $800 billion large and includes quadrupling Title I funding with the possible goal of “closing the educator pay gap,” but does not say how much would be devoted to salary increases or what the change in salary would be for the average American teacher. In a video shared on Twitter last night, Warren says she wants to give “about 1 million dollars each for every public school in excellence awards for the school to do what the school wants to do to be the school it wants to be. Schools decide how to spend that money. Whether it’s on teacher salaries. Whether it’s on new labs. Whether it’s on more reading specialists or more counselors.”
A one-time gift of 1 million dollars to schools may sound good at first listen, but actually does little to sustainably change the shape of the rampant inequity between K-12 schools and in no way fixes the long-term regression of teacher buying power. In fact, similar to the ineffective Obama-era “Race To The Top” awards, a large percentage of this money would likely be used to increase spending on superficial private sector products, like new technology or curriculum, to boost short-term test scores at the expense of real learning or childhood wellness. Not to raise teacher salaries.
Senator Warren, teachers are tired of this kind of budgetary squander and deserve specifics about exactly how they will be sustainably compensated for the heroic work they do every day.
I suggest that you raise the cultural value of the teaching profession by endorsing a federal minimum salary of $60K, with adjustments for areas where cost of living is higher. Furthermore, I suggest that you raise teacher retention by supporting pay schedule requirements that give teachers yearly salary increases at rates equal to other graduate-level professionals in America.
Our last Democratic president’s legacy is scarred by an education agenda that wasted money on standardized testing and teacher evaluation with the ultimate result of deepening American inequality. This week alone, the very Chicago teachers with whom you are striking are rallying against Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s lackluster execution on K-12 issues.
As a Democrat in 2019-20, you are not immune to teacher criticism and must be more specific when addressing the biggest “structural change” needed in education, teacher pay. As you can probably tell from the picket line today: we, teachers, are done asking politely.