Kamala Harris Talks Teacher Pay, Decriminalizing Sex Work & Student Debt

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On Tuesday, Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Kamala Harris unveiled a teacher pay plan that would give America’s public school teachers a big raise, marking the first major policy rollout of her campaign. The proposal calls for federal and state education agencies to collaborate and set a base salary goal for beginning teachers that would raise the average teacher’s pay by $13,500 over four years; federal incentives for states to further increase pay; additional targeted investment in America’s highest-need schools; and funding for teacher recruitment, training and development. The plan would cost approximately $315 billion over 10 years, according to the Harris campaign, and would be paid for by strengthening the estate tax.

Prior to announcing her candidacy, Harris introduced the LIFT the Middle Class Act, a tax plan that would offer big credits to middle-income and working class families. In addition to fielding the policy questions that are being posed to all candidates, on issues like Medicare for All, gun violence, and the Green New Deal, Harris is also explaining how her vision for America squares with her record as a tough-on-crime district attorney in San Francisco, and attorney general of California. That includes revisiting positions on marijuana legalization and decriminalizing sex work.

Bustle's Alicia Menendez spoke with Harris about her decision to boost teachers, what she would do about existing student debt, and whether sex work can be decriminalized if there is no legal way to pay for it.

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Alicia Menendez: Let’s start by talking about your recent proposal: a pay increase for America’s teachers. Why focus on teachers?

Kamala Harris: So many reasons. You can judge a society by the way it treats its children. One of the greatest gifts that we can give a child is a robust education. The people who are educating our children are teachers. We are not paying them their value. When we look at the fact that teachers are making 11 percent less than other college graduates, that equals about $13,500 a year. I'm meeting more teachers than I can tell you who are working two jobs, and I've met teachers who are actually working three jobs, as well. The data is clear: 94 percent of teachers are [paying] out of their own pockets to pay for school supplies. It is a real issue that is having a profound impact on the education of our children. When you have any professional who has to work two jobs, even three jobs, to pay the bills, we can expect that they're not going to be able to give all that they want to give in that classroom every day.

When we think about it in terms of recruitment and retention — the idea that there is some great biochemistry student who wants to teach her passion, but she can't afford to pay off her student loans, and so she goes to a pharmaceutical company instead. Or, some great mathematician student wants to teach math to middle school students, but he can't pay off his loans or he can't even pay his rent, so he goes to Wall Street instead. That shouldn't be what's happening. We should have incentives built in to the system to, one, recognize the value of our teachers, and two, to understand that ultimately if people are not paid their value, it has an impact on what will actually happen in terms of whether it'll be a robust system or not.

AM: Multiple elements of this proposal tackle race inequality (targeted investments in highest-need schools, which disproportionately serve communities of color, as well as investments in HBCUs). You’ve said you would address reparations through economic policy. Do you see this plan as part of that vision?

KH: No. Listen, on the reparations issue, we are supporting the idea that we need to study it, and I'm not an expert on it by any means in terms of what tests should look like. I think it needs to be studied, which is why I'm supporting the bill that actually would do that, and convene experts to figure out what that should look like.

AM: Then in what ways do you see the teacher pay issue being a question of racial equality?

KH: I would say it's about racial [equality], but it's also socioeconomic. I'm traveling in a lot of rural communities where there may not be a lot of children of color, but there are a lot of poor children. What I know to be clear is that there's a $4,000 pay gap between the average teacher pay and those in the highest-need schools, which are disproportionately students of color.

You look at the highest-need schools, and there are many criteria or factors that would qualify or would fit that definition, including school districts where you'd have a large number of foster care kids, [and] school districts where you have high crime, high poverty. Because of course, those two things are connected. Part of what I'm excited about, what we're proposing, is that we would actually give more. We would increase pay relative to all teachers, but for those who are in the highest-need schools, they would actually get even more. Because, again, it's a matter of not only recognizing the value of the work of those teachers, which I know includes the work of not only educating children, but being a counselor, being somebody who deals with crisis management. It is somebody who deals with the emotional needs of the children. There's a variety of benefits that teachers perform for our children that go uncompensated.

In our highest-need schools, of course they're performing at peak performance and not being paid their value. That specific piece of our legislation and our proposal is also about recognizing that we need to create incentives for teachers to teach our children in these highest-need school districts, and those are disproportionately school districts with a majority of children of color.

AM: In the pantheon of issues that we're seeing in this campaign, everything from “Medicare for All” to breaking up tech monopolies, what's the message you want to send to voters by putting teacher pay front and center?

KH: I think the biggest message is that we need to be smarter in the way that we are running our government. And by smarter, I mean that we need to think about where and if we as taxpayers are getting the greatest return on our investment. On the issue of teacher pay, we are not investing enough, and we're paying the price for that.

AM: You earlier brought up student debt, and so I want to ask you about that. You’ve been a strong proponent of addressing one of the greatest challenges facing my generation: student debt. You called for debt-free college in your announcement speech, and you’ve co-sponsored legislation that would make public colleges and universities tuition-free for many Americans. You’ve also urged student debt forgiveness from predatory colleges. But what about student debt forgiveness, more broadly? What relief can you offer those already drowning in student debt?

KH: Part of it is that we need to — and I've done work in the past — deal with the predators in [debt collection], and those that are misleading and overcharging borrowers and offering to so-called “service” those loans. Then they charge students exorbitant fees, and don't actually give them any benefit. I think that it's also important to protect the gainful employment rule that the current secretary of education, [Betsy] DeVos, is trying to roll back. That's about holding the for-profit schools accountable to actually prepare students for the jobs that they're advertising that these kids can get. I sued Corinthian Colleges for that very issue when I was attorney general.

We also need to allow students to refinance high-interest loans, and refinance them down to rates that are currently offered for new federal borrowers. That’s 5 to 8 percent where students are being charged interest loans at much higher rates, in the 20s and 30s. Then, [it’s] also ensuring that students have income-based repayments, that they can make payments that are commensurate and in line with their income.

The LIFT Act, which I'm also proposing, is about giving tax credits to families that are making less than $100,000 a year. One in seven students who are on Pell Grants also qualify for the Lift Act, and that's gonna be about a tax credit of up to $500 a month.

I am acutely aware our economy is not working, and it's not working for working people. I am acutely aware that over the previous several decades, and previous few decades for sure, the rules have been written in a way that have not benefited middle class working people. It just has not. We've got to correct course. When you look at a situation where in America almost half of American families can't afford a $400 unexpected expense. When you look at a situation in America where in 99 percent of the country, minimum wage workers cannot afford market rates for a one bedroom apartment. When you look at the fact that last year alone, 12 million Americans borrowed on average $400 from a payday lender at an interest rate of sometimes over 300 percent. We know that this system has been designed in a way that is not benefiting some of the hardest working Americans.

AM: You recently stated support for decriminalizing sex work, a departure from your earlier position on the issue. Do you still support criminalizing purchasing sex?

KM: I think that we should not criminalize women in the way that the system has traditionally done, which is to arrest a prostitute and convict women for sex work. I've seen it my entire career where there is a disproportionate kind of criminalization of those women to the exclusion of looking at johns and pimps. I even, early in my career, was responsible for a law that enhanced penalties for johns and pimps who sold and bought children, minors, in connection with sex. My perspective is that, yeah, we should take a serious look at decriminalizing prostitution as it relates to the women. I feel very strongly about this: Where there has been exploitation, where there has been abuse of anybody, that should be subject to criminal prosecution.

AM: But can you fully decriminalize sex work if there is no legal way to engage in sex work?

KH: I think we should have that discussion. I think that's definitely a fair point that you're raising. We should have that discussion, but for women who are not the subject of abuse, not the subject of exploitation, not the subject of trafficking, I think that we should really, critically examine whether we are criminalizing these women in a way that is unfair.

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AM: Finally, a personal question. You’ve been outspoken about how the Black and the South Asian parts of your identity aren’t separate; they're part of a whole. After former President Barack Obama, also mixed race, grappled with the same questions more than 10 years ago, are you surprised to see them being posed to you?

KH: Come on, now. (Laughter) We can have a four-hour conversation about race in America!

AM: Fair!

KH: What I will tell you is this: I think that with each one of us achieving the success we have, you and I both know it challenges people's notions of who can do what, and it challenges people's notions of who is what. Who we are. People are still trying to figure it out. Sometimes I have the patience to help them figure it out, sometimes I don't.

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.