Nearly 3,000 teachers in Oakland went on strike demanding a 12 percent retroactive raise on February 21, 2019 in Oakland, California. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Democratic candidates scrambled to talk about raising teachers salaries during the debate.
Teachers got their moment at the third Democratic debate when Democratic candidates rushed to defend public education and proposed raising teachers salaries.
Education and raising teachers’ salaries are issues that are often decided at the state and local level. But even so, there was a robust education discussion during the ABC News/Univision debate — and candidates often returned to the idea of paying teachers more, even when pressed on more controversial education topics such as the role of charter schools.
“Some of it is simple, we just have to pay teachers more,” South Bend Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg said. “And we have to lift up the teaching profession.”
Candidates didn’t shy away from embracing teachers unions. At one point, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) was asked point blank by a moderator whether she was “just jumping into bed with teachers unions.” It was a question easily deflected by Warren, a former public school teacher herself.
“We will have a secretary of education who has been a public school teacher,” Warren said, repeating a line taking direct aim at current Trump administration Secretary of State Betsy DeVos, a conservative billionaire who is a proponent of school vouchers and charter schools. “Let’s be clear in all the ways we talk about this, money for public schools should stay in public schools. Not go anywhere else.”
Candidates, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), put numbers to their proposals: Sanders wants to raise starting salaries for teachers across the nation to $60,000 while Harris wants to give teachers an average raise of $13,500 a year to close a pay gap in public education.
Few candidates, aside from Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), defended charter schools. As mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Booker oversaw a massive overhaul of the city’s schools, infuriating teachers unions. Charter schools in Newark have thrived; the city’s public schools haven’t fared as well.
“People are talking about raising teacher salaries. We actually did it in Newark, New Jersey,” Booker said. “We didn’t stop there. We closed poor-performing charter schools, but we expanded high-performer charter schools. We were a city that said, we need to find local solutions that work for our community. The results speak for themselves.”
No matter their plans, 2020 Democratic candidates talked about education and empowering teachers to boost students in moral terms.
“We are the wealthiest country in the history of the world. And yet, we have the highest child poverty rate of almost any country on Earth,” Sanders thundered. “We have teachers in this country who are leaving education because they can’t work two or three jobs to support themselves.”
This discussion is coming after a year of teachers’ strikes across the nation
The discussion around education isn’t happening in a vacuum. Teachers across the country have spent 2018 and 2019 striking to demand better pay and benefits.
It’s a trend that started in West Virginia, when teachers who were the lowest paid in the country with no right to collectively bargain went on strike for nine days, effectively shutting down schools in the state. The resulting pressure got the state’s Republican governor and legislature to agree to give teachers a 5 percent raise and to hold off on raising their health insurance premiums.
There was a big reason the teachers in West Virginia were striking for so long; their pay was really, really low. As Vox’s Alexia Fernandez Campbell wrote:
Teachers in the state were angry that they hadn’t received an across-the-board salary raise since 2014, and were among the lowest-paid teachers in the country. The average teacher salary in the state was $44,701 in 2016, according to the National Education Association, making West Virginia 48th in the nation.
And the strikes didn’t end in that state, they continued in five other states: Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, California, and Colorado. It marked a resurgence of collective action that helped get results, and it’s helped spur a national conversation about teachers salaries.
That national conversation made it all the way to the 2020 presidential debate stage. But there are still a lot of questions teachers who watched the debate may have about how the federal government can intercede with powerful state and local governments that ultimately make the decisions about their pay.