Kamala Harris’s Teacher-Pay Plan: Adventures in Logrolling

Senator Kamala Harris (D, Calif.) speaks at Politics and Eggs at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., February 19, 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Senator Kamala Harris has proposed a $315 billion program to raise teachers’ salaries by $13,500. There is nothing quite as fine to the worst kind of politician as buying an election with someone else’s money. Given that teachers’ unions are the financial bedrock of Democratic campaigns — together the NEA and the AFT were the third-largest spender in politics, and they donate almost exclusively to Democrats, with most of that money derived from dues deducted from teacher salaries — this is the Democrats voting tax dollars into their own political coffers, world-class logrolling.

That aside, it’s also lousy policy.

Dozens of academic studies over the years have failed to establish any consistent link between changes to teachers’ pay and students’ educational outcomes. The most reasonable interpretation of those data is that teachers’ compensation already is well above whatever hypothetical point it would need to be raised to for educational purposes. But Senator Harris frames this instead as a question of social justice.

That’s a peculiar way of looking at it. The average teacher’s individual compensation slightly exceeds the median household income of the United States; two married people each earning the average teacher’s pay would have a joint income placing them at the 90th income percentile. Households in the top 10 percent are not the most obvious cases of economic marginalization.

Senator Harris and others complain that teachers have lagged in compensation when compared with those who have similar education and experience, by which they mean college degrees and years of service. But this is a case of conflating credentials with education: Undergraduates entering colleges of education in pursuit of teaching careers reliably have the lowest test scores and grades of students in any major; a master’s degree in education is by no means comparable to a master’s degree in, say, electrical engineering, and doctorates in education are basically clipped from the backs of cereal boxes.

Even if such degrees were intellectually comparable, that would have little bearing on their economic value: Professors of art make substantially less money than professors of finance not because art is less valuable than banking but because finance professors have many high-paying alternatives to teaching, and professors of art have Starbucks.

Senator Harris might have proposed a $315 billion program focused on — imagine! — students. But students mostly are not old enough to vote, and they make very few campaign contributions.

Public schools are run largely at the local level, and for good reason. Decisions about compensation and other factors relating to teachers’ work belong at the local level, too — because that is where there is the most ready and direct democratic accountability. The Democrats’ push to federalize everything from policing practices to cow ponds to teachers’ salaries runs contrary to local democratic accountability and is part of an effort to centralize power in Washington for purely political purposes.

The Democrats have for more than a generation resisted every substantive attempt at reforming the public schools, especially in Democrat-dominated places such as New York City and Cleveland, where the public schools are failures overall and catastrophic failures for the poor, African Americans, and Latinos. They have fought school choice, targeted assistance for grossly neglected communities, accountability measures, and more — all while their most important political constituents were busily engaged in standardized-test fraud for students and professional-certification fraud for themselves. The system is dysfunctional, and Senator Harris proposes to shovel money into the fire.

Consider the African-American dropout rate in Wisconsin, where the Democrats will be holding their convention in 2020: More than a third of the state’s black students fail to graduate from high school. At Milwaukee’s North Division High School, nearly 40 percent of the students are absent on any given day, fewer than a third graduate in four years, and the ACT math proficiency rate is 0.0 percent. There are many reasons for this, but it seems unlikely that the average total compensation for a Milwaukee public-school teacher — more than $100,000 a year — is prominent among them.

Funny thing about big money in politics. The truth isn’t the story you usually hear from the Democrats and their media allies: With more than $40 million in combined 2018 giving, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers were jointly the third-largest donor of the last election cycle. That is not unusual for them. Overall, they are the largest long-term source of political donations for Democrats. Those big-money malefactors you’re always hearing about from the likes of Senator Harris have in reality nowhere near as big a financial footprint in politics: Koch Industries is way down the list at No. 30, the Club for Growth at No. 37, and the almighty National Rifle Association at . . . No. 517. If you’re wondering what kind of political clout buys you a $315 billion windfall, that’s it.

There are good teachers and bad teachers, underpaid teachers and overpaid teachers. Senator Harris’s scheme has nothing to do with any of those issues, which are best addressed at the local level. Her proposal is not at heart about education at all. It’s an opening bid for the 2020 Democratic primary, and a high one.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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