Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris must have been one of the people AFT president Randi Weingarten was referring to when she said on C-Span, in the context of the 2020 hopefuls being “eager for the teachers’ backing," that her “phone had rung a lot” because Harris has quickly morphed into a union mouthpiece. The language is so familiar it reads like the same old script. Students are nowhere to be found in her comments, parents are absent from her tweets, and learning outcomes don’t even get a single mention.
Harris had decided to focus on the need to pay teachers more, respect teachers more, and support one delivery system of education—the public one. She makes no mention of teacher quality, student learning, or parent choice. One does wonder if she has even looked at the numbers of children all over this nation who do not read at grade level—36 percent of fourth-graders, 36 percent of eighth-graders, and 37 percent of twelfth-graders read at or above grade level.
If we disaggregate by race, here are the percentages of students in America who read at or above grade level:
|American Indian/Alaskan native students||22%|
82 percent of black students, 77 percent of Hispanic students, and 78 percent of Native Americans in eighth grade do not read at grade level yet Kamala Harris doesn’t even believe it worthy of a mention. More than half of white students can’t read at grade level either—but she has made the calculated choice not to make her education agenda student centered or parent centered.
Now let’s look at eighth-grade math disaggregated by race:
|American Indian/Alaskan native students||18%|
87 percent of black students, 80 percent of Hispanic students, and 82 percent of Native American students cannot do math at grade level. Neither can more than half of white students.
But she has come out of the gate attacking privatization—which is kind of strange since she doesn’t define it but seems to be fine with public dollars funding private universities and faith based pre-schools. While it is refreshing to see at least one candidate come out decisively on education, Harris has made the calculated decision to put her stake in the ground on the side of those whose mission is to fight against the overwhelming demand from parents—especially parents of color—for more educational freedom for their children.
And on substance, this whole teacher salary thing is ridiculous in the context of fifty states and over thirteen thousand school districts. The average teacher salary in Boston, for example, is $99,368. Are we supposed to put on red t-shirts and clamor for federal raises there? Meanwhile, a teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has to teach for thirteen years just to earn $38,400. But Harris has decided that union support and money are more important than student learning and student outcomes and, ahem, students themselves. She avoids even talking about them.
Now, quick, say something about students.— Citizen Stewart (@citizenstewart) March 23, 2019
*they don’t have a union or lobby. https://t.co/tKxrOs2M79
Randi is ecstatic.
THIS is incredible!! @KamalaHarris is putting attracting & retaining teachers front and center. This would make a huge difference in the lives of educators, our students and our communities. #AFTVotes #FundOurFuture https://t.co/gwg8PysGNm— Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten) March 23, 2019
Moments ago, I pledged that at the end of my first term as president we'll close the teacher pay gap with the largest federal investment in teacher pay in American history.— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) March 23, 2019
No teacher should have to work 2-3 jobs to survive. That’s wrong. I’m ready to do something about it. pic.twitter.com/opgTKHiSLm
Our country needs an Administration that supports public education, not privatization.— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) March 23, 2019
We need a Secretary of Education who actually has experience in education.
We need a president who stands with teachers, has their backs and respects their work.
Lily at least mentions student success but then throws in her usual lazy plug for “neighborhood schools.” She must really hate magnet schools and exam schools.
#RedforEd is about student success & respect for educators & public education. This should be central to the 2020 conversation. We applaud @KamalaHarris for focusing on attracting & keeping great educators in neighborhood schools! #StrongPublicSchools https://t.co/uqdzDSdJEQ— Lily Eskelsen García (@Lily_NEA) March 23, 2019
I know the impact teachers can have. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Wilson, supported me from my time at Thousand Oaks Elementary School to when I walked across the stage to get my law degree. Supporting our teachers is critical for our students, our economy, and our country. pic.twitter.com/Xe3Lh6t3ml— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) March 24, 2019
Kamala Harris graduated from school reading at grade level and went on to become highly successful and accomplished. I find it hard to believe that she doesn’t believe all students in this nation—a nation she aspires to lead—don’t deserve the same. Too bad that principled belief isn’t strong enough to stand up to the powerful interests whose job it is to put adult interests before what children need and deserve.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Good School Hunting.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.