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Does Kamala Harris Really Know What Teachers Want?

Photo: Mason Trinca/Getty Images

Senator Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign has been haunted by criticism of the harsh school-truancy program she launched as the attorney general of California. But on Tuesday, she made an early bid to distinguish herself as a progressive education candidate. Her campaign introduced a $315 billion proposal that would raise teacher pay by an average of $13,500 over the next ten years. Unions praised it, and Politico called it “the most aggressive and expansive education proposal among the 2020 field,” with some legitimacy. Her policy is certainly the only teacher-specific pay proposal to be introduced by a Democratic campaign so far, and it’s hard to argue with Harris’s motivations as she states them. “The truth is, we are a nation and a society that pretends to care about education — not so much the education of other people’s children,” she said at a Sunday event. A worsening national teacher shortage and an ongoing wave of teacher walkouts work to underscore her point.

By introducing such a dramatic education proposal so early in the primary process, Harris has established a standard by which other candidates will be judged. It’s not her only recent overture to educators, either. Harris was one of several Democratic candidates who tweeted in support of striking Los Angeles teachers in January:

Harris is clearly responsive to educators. Teacher pay varies dramatically from state to state — sometimes district to district — but overall, it hasn’t kept pace with inflation. Stagnant salaries amount to pay cuts, and student-debt burdens only contribute to the financial distress many educators endure on the job. There’s no question, then, that Harris’s pay policy would help resolve an outstanding American scandal.

But despite this early, positive sign from a campaign that’s sure to release more education proposals, Harris’s record as attorney general still threatens to undermine her progressive rebrand. If she wants to be her party’s education candidate, she’ll have to meaningfully address her campaign to prosecute the parents of truant children. Educators didn’t just strike over their salary concerns. They sought justice for students and families, too — a fact Harris acknowledged in her tweet.

Even the issue of low pay, which has long been one of teachers’ central grievances, isn’t solely about their bank accounts. The damage from educator poverty ripples outward and harms students, too. Low salaries can contribute to high rates of teacher turnover, and they add to the burdens of stressful profession. An emphasis on salary narrows the story about American education that’s emerged from the teacher strikes.

The Los Angeles teachers that Harris praised also wanted material resources for their students. They wanted more school nurses and counselors and librarians. They protested the growth of charter schools, which had, they said, siphoned funds away from traditional public schools in desperate need. Given their status as educators in a gentrifying city, they saw inequality up close and struck, in part, because of its effects on their classrooms.

The Los Angeles strike is not an isolated case. From higher pay to new social workers, the demands of striking educators in city after city and state after state seek to alleviate the consequences of poverty. As California’s attorney general, Harris helped criminalize it. Her truancy campaign swept up parents like Cheree Peoples, whose daughter had missed 20 days of school due to complications from sickle-cell anemia. As HuffPost’s Molly Redden reported on Wednesday, an eager Orange County police department arrested Peoples at her home and then perp-walked her in front of press.

In her memoir, Harris framed the campaign as a compassionate measure. “Even today, others don’t appreciate the intention behind my approach; they assume that my motivation was to lock up parents, when of course that was never the goal. Our effort was designed to connect parents to resources that could help them get their kids back into school, where they belonged,” she wrote. “We were trying to support parents, not punish them — and in the vast majority of cases, we succeeded.”

Harris is trying to present herself to primary voters as a progressive prosecutor, but her justification doesn’t fully make sense. Her program threatened parents with a $2,500 fine and jail time for truancy, though there’s little evidence that punitive measures consistently improve school attendance. A parent may neglect to send a child to school because they simply don’t care, but that isn’t the only or even the most prevalent source of truancy. Campaigns like Harris’s assume malice where structural explanations will do. Poverty and its assorted symptoms can keep children from making it to school on a consistent basis; as Redden notes in her piece, research suggests that children are more prone to truancy when they’re homeless or ill. In Washington, D.C., educators found that transportation access contributed to absenteeism, too.

For parents like Peoples, punitive school truancy laws can be life altering. The families of truant children likely can’t afford steep fines, and that can mean jail, an outcome that abandons vulnerable people to a system designed to punish them. One Pennsylvania woman even died in jail while serving a sentence for unpaid truancy fines. The burdens inflicted by these injustices ultimately fall on students themselves. If she hopes to win over more educators, Harris will have to demonstrate she now has a deeper, broader understanding of the problems that have been driving striking teachers out of their classrooms.

Does Kamala Harris Really Know What Teachers Want?