Kamala Harris brings emphasis on education

IOWA CITY — Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of hundreds Wednesday at the University of Iowa, where she promised to restore “the importance of truth and justice” if elected in 2020.

“We are better than this,” Harris said at the Iowa Memorial Union, going on to condemn what she called a fueling of white supremacy, a poor economy for workers, inaction on climate change and a failure to address gun violence.

The California senator and former attorney general lingered on her plan to boost pay for teachers, which, in Iowa, would raise teachers’ pay by $12,200 on average annually.

The hike, funded primarily through an increase in the estate tax, would close the wage gap between teachers and similarly educated college graduates in other professions. In Iowa in 2017, teachers on average were paid $55,000.

“You can judge a society based on how it treats its children,” Harris said. “So then we know one of the greatest expressions a society can make — it’s an expression of love for its children — is to invest in their education, and by extension that means investing in our teachers.”

Harris met with a group of Iowa City teachers ahead of the event, including Lisa Mellecker of Northwest Junior High and Travis Henderson of West High. Her interest in public education was uplifting, they said.

“At the state level and at the national level, there seems to be a growing skepticism of our professionalism and the work we do in schools,” said Henderson, who teachers AP Psychology. “So it’s nice to see someone active in politics who has faith in us and is supportive of what we do. Literally, that gesture alone has boosted morale for teachers.”

It’s support they’ve seen dwindle in the Iowa Statehouse, they said, as increases to state supplemental aid for schools have been incremental in recent years.

“Education in this country and in our state have been underfunded for a very long time,” math teacher Mellecker said. “Seeing someone at the federal level step up when the federal Department of Education hasn’t been extremely supportive in recent years is really encouraging.”

Harris’ suggested pay boost would have a real impact for many teachers, said Henderson, who said he spends about a third of his monthly income on student loan payments.

During the town hall, Harris slammed politicians who tout the stock market or low unemployment as a marker of a healthy economy, noting she has met many teachers in Iowa who are working two or three jobs to pay the bills.

“As far as I’m concerned, in our America, you should only have to work one job,” she said.

She also told the crowd she supports the Green New Deal, a stimulus package that aims to address climate change, universal background checks for gun purchases and Medicare for all.

Stacey Noble, an Iowa City West High School teacher who waited in the event’s line that stretched down into the Memorial Union’s basement, said while she supports many of Harris’ proposals, she is looking for someone who can deliver.

“All of these policy initiatives, they are going to have to bridge that gap that’s been created,” Noble said. “It’s that reality — that unless you’re breaking out of that echo chamber that has become a scream machine — there’s not a whole lot to be done.”