Unions and Dems unveil $50B teacher pay, school infrastructure bill
West Virginia teachers strike. | AP

WASHINGTON—Backed by leaders of the nation’s two big teachers unions, congressional Democrats unveiled a 10-year $50 billion bill to raise teacher pay and rebuild crumbling schools nationwide.

To pay for it, lawmakers should repeal the Trump-GOP tax cuts for the rich, especially deductions and loopholes they use, said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., its top sponsor. “The $50 billion is not an expenditure but an investment” in teachers, kids and the nation’s future, he declared.

Besides the federal money for paying teachers and school staffers, the measure authorizes – but does not actually dole out — funds to repair buildings and buy new books and materials. The legislation would also strengthen teachers’ right to organize nationwide, added House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., without specifying how.

The legislation builds on the rising tide of marches and protests from the nation’s teachers. Acting from the grass-roots, they have hit the streets, almost all in red states, to demand more spending to fix up schools and provide kids with proper and up-to-date materials, raise teacher and support staff pay, and roll back state tax cuts for the rich that robbed schools of funds.

South Carolina teachers were the latest to don “RedforEd” T-shirts and march in the state capitol of Columbia, on May 19. One teacher told The State, Carolina’s leading newspaper, she holds told four other part-time jobs to make ends meet, in addition to her full-time teaching job.

Like colleagues in West Virginia – who successfully struck for nine days – Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina, the South Carolinians, members of the Palmetto State Teachers Association/NEA, want more state funding for the schools, and better pay for themselves and staffers. All, save swing states Colorado and North Carolina, are deep red states where lawmakers cut taxes on the rich instead.

An average South Carolina teacher earned $48,769 last year, 36th among all states, NEA figures gathered from federal data show. The state spent $1,802 per pupil, 39th among states. Schumer, Pelosi, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen-Garcia and Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten want the feds to help teachers in both areas.

Teachers once could “afford a decent home, a car and an occasional vacation,” Schumer said. “Teaching should be an exalted profession in the 21st century, just as doctors and lawyers were in the 20th.”

“What these Democratic leaders are seeing is what we have seen all across the country,” added Weingarten.  “Twenty-nine states still spend less on public education than they did before the recession hit” in 2008. And, like that teacher in South Carolina, “59 percent of educators hold a second job.”

“This didn’t happen overnight,” Weingarten, a New York City middle school civics teacher, said. “It’s the result of decades of policies of tax cuts, spending cuts and an overemphasis on testing…And teachers shouldn’t be acting as shields” for kids in school shootings. The GOP, its lawmakers and the notorious gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, want to arm teachers, a call some renewed after the latest mass shooting, of eight students and two teachers in Texas.

All that hurts the kids, added Eskelsen-Garcia, a 6th grade teacher from Salt Lake City. “We never expect to get rich” in the profession “but we’ve had that raw deal for too long.”

“We’ve seen the hashtag that says ‘#Enoughisenough,’ and we’ll do everything for our students – including taking bullets for them. But we need the political force for new buildings and better salaries” so teachers can concentrate on teaching their kids rather than trying to make ends meet, buying them school supplies or dealing with crumbling classrooms, she added.

Teachers “shouldn’t have to be Uber drivers or fast-food workers on weekends.”

The Democrats enthusiastically pushed the legislation and implored congessional Republicans to join them. That’s unlikely in this GOP-controlled Congress, Schumer admitted.

“The odds of something like this advancing in the next several years are a problem,” he said. “The Republicans are giving teachers a raw deal.” Doing so “is one of the dumbest things they’re doing.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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