Democrats Compete To Corner Teacher Support In Caucuses

Dec 16, 2019

Democrats running for president in Iowa are working to get teachers in their corners on caucus night. Teachers are a coveted voting bloc because they show up in numbers and are well-organized.

Iowa has around 40,000 elementary, middle and high school teachers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Mack Shelley, a political science professor at Iowa State University, said teachers’ unions across the country have been flexing their political strength.

“West Virginia is a case in point, where the teachers banded together and they were able to force a Republican legislature to raise salaries,” Shelley said. “There's plenty of clout there, and honestly it would take a pretty stupid politician not to try to take advantage of that.”

Earlier this year teachers also helped win the governor’s race in Kentucky for Democrat Andy Beshear. In 2017, Iowa teachers rallied at the state capitol to try to fight Republican efforts to weaken collective bargaining.

Candidates are trying to tap into that political energy by talking about how they’ll support public schools, and teachers in particular.

Sen. Bernie Sancers, D-Vermont, has proposed setting a base salary for teachers across the U.S.
Credit John Pemble

Putting the pay gap in play

One way candidates are appealing to teachers is by offering them a raise. A study from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) showed that teachers’ salaries lag behind their peers with the same education level, especially in subjects like science and technology.

“The estimate from that report was that teachers are paid about 30 percent less than what other workers in their economies are getting,” said Michael Hansen, an education policy analyst at the Brookings Institution. “This is a drag on education. It’s a drag on schools and it’s a drag on how students are performing.”

Candidates have competing plans for narrowing that gap. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders would create a base salary for teachers nationwide.

“We have teachers in this country who are leaving education because they can’t work two or three jobs to support themselves,” Sanders said at the September debate. “Which is why under my legislation we will move to see that every teacher in America makes at least $60,000 a year.”

Sen. Cory Booker would raise teacher pay by creating a tax credit for teachers.
Credit John Pemble

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro each want to create a refundable tax credit for teachers. Booker’s would be worth up to $11,500 while Castro is proposing a credit up to $10,000.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden would each raise teacher pay as part of an increase in funding for schools in high poverty areas through the Title I program. Biden proposes increasing Title I funding from around $15 billion to more than $45 billion. Warren would quadruple current spending on the program. Both would require part of the additional money to be used to pay teachers more.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, would require a portion of increased school funding to go toward raising teacher pay.
Credit John Pemble

Paying teachers is typically the responsibility of local school districts. Carving out a role for the federal government would be unprecedented, Hansen said, and it’s unclear how it could be done through programs for low-incomes schools.

“The question that would come out of that is whether this support for competitive teacher salaries from Title I funding is only potentially possible for teachers in these high need schools or whether it's something that could open up funding elsewhere,” Hansen said.  

Looking for local impact

Most school budgets are filled with revenue from state and local taxes. But according to Iowa State University political science professor Mack Shelley, it’s a common misconception that federal funding has an equal stake in the system. In reality, the $55 billion dollars of federal funding that went to local schools in 2017 was less than 10 percent of school revenue nationwide.

“When you spread that across 50 states and thousands of school districts, it's a drop in the bucket, more or less, for any individual district,” Shelley said.

Most federal money goes toward making resources more even across school districts. Tammy Wawro, a middle school language arts instructor in Cedar Rapids, said teachers notice the impact in the classroom even if the funding is a small part of school finances overall.

“The pie is only so big, but the federal government can make that pie bigger,” said Wawro, who is also the former president of the Iowa State Education Association. She has said she will caucus for Joe Biden.

Wawro said federal programs like special education have been underfunded for years, so it matters to her that most Democratic candidates have said they would fully fund it.

“The federal government still is not funding what they are supposed to fund,” she said. “So schools are making that up on the backs of teachers [and] on the backs of other students.”

It’s another way candidates are trying to earn support from teachers on caucus night, by promising to close funding gaps in and out of the classroom.