Politics & Government

Kamala Harris’ teacher pay proposal gets its first testing ground: South Carolina

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris wants to show her presidential pitch is resonating in South Carolina, and a freshman state legislator from that critical early presidential primary state wants to help her make her case.

S.C. Rep. JA Moore, D-Berkeley, has taken the thrust of Harris’ recently announced education platform and turned it into legislation, which he formally introduced on Wednesday.

The bill has almost zero chance of passing. South Carolina’s GOP-controlled legislature will have little interest in advancing a Democratic presidential hopeful’s agenda, especially as lawmakers face a Wednesday deadline for moving bills from one chamber to the other.

However, the legislation does show the candidate’s efforts to stand out in a crowded field by, in part, finding allies to help share her vision in the state, which hosts the important “first-in-the-South” contest in the Democratic nominating process.

Harris has said that if she’s elected president, she’ll call for enactment of a law that raises teacher salaries in the United States by an average of 23%. Under her plan, the federal government would start off by giving each state the first 10% of funding needed to close the teacher pay gap, then encourage states to close the remainder of the gap by investing $3 for every $1 states contribute toward meeting that goal.

Moore’s bill, called “Teachers First,” would adopt this model by requiring South Carolina to make the necessary investments to fully close the teacher pay gap. The bill calls for South Carolina teachers to see a salary increase of 19% within four years.

This is the first time a lawmaker has sought to formalize Harris’ plan and introduce it in a state capitol. Harris, a California Democrat, has not introduced a legislative version of this blueprint on Capitol Hill.

“The decision to file the bill wasn’t my decision,” Moore told The State in an interview on Tuesday. “It was the needs of the teachers here in South Carolina. We have an epidemic in South Carolina with an exodus of teachers. My mom’s been in education for 40 years, and she’s worked in five different counties. I know first-hand the hard work that teachers do.”

Despite facing tough odds for advancing the bill, Moore, a Harris campaign co-chairman, said he wanted to “be bold” by putting the legislation forward at this time.

“It’s exciting for me to be able to partner with Sen. Harris on closing this gap for teachers,” he said. “We have to do it and we have to do it now.”

Though Moore described the legislation’s origins as “a collaborative effort,” a spokeswoman for the Harris campaign told The State on Tuesday it was Moore’s idea to introduce a bill “that would complement the federal proposal.

“The campaign was excited that Harris’ plan was helping to inspire action at the local level, especially in a state where teacher pay has led to dire consequences for too many students,” the spokeswoman added.

S.C. teachers are fleeing the classroom in record numbers. Low pay and a host of other reasons are driving them from away, The State reported last May after talking to dozens of educators for an extensive series on the growing crisis facing public schools.

When Harris first announced her sweeping proposal to raise teacher pay, her campaign put together a fact sheet describing how the new policy platform would play out in South Carolina. The state is undergoing its own attempt at overhauling its antiquated school system, though it appears that sweeping effort will fall short this year.

Harris isn’t the only Democratic candidate who wants to stand out in an increasingly crowded field in South Carolina. Other contenders are also trying to make an impression by endearing themselves to voters in hopes of showing they are the most committed to the state.

When Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper came to the state to talk about curbing gun violence, the venue he chose to have that conversation was deliberate: He went to Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, the site of the June 2015 shooting of nine black parishioners attending bible study, and spoke directly to survivors of that massacre.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., chose Orangeburg, S.C., as the site of his March prime time town hall event with CNN, where students from two local, historically black colleges — South Carolina State University and Claflin University — were given priority seating. He has also introduced anti-poverty legislation with the state’s Democratic kingmaker, U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, and has tried to emulate the veteran lawmaker’s approach to on-the-ground campaigning.

And everybody wants to be seen making the right order at the local barbecue joints.

Political scientists in the state said Harris’ particular strategy is a smart one.

“Winthrop poll after Winthrop poll has shown that South Carolina Democrats always list education as the number one issue facing South Carolina,” said Scott Huffmon, who runs Winthrop University’s well-regarded surveys of S.C. public opinion. “She’s making sure she’s not only talking about that, but saying, ‘Hey, I have an ally to try to do something about it in your state.’ That is definitely speaking the language of the folks who are going to turn out and vote.”

Gibbs Knotts of the College of Charleston, co-author of a forthcoming book on the history of the South Carolina presidential primary, agrees that Harris is taking her aggressive courtship of South Carolina voters “to the next level.”

Harris began her campaign by reaching out to grassroots activist groups in the state. SC for Ed founder Lisa Ellis, who was one of the first advocates to meet with the Harris team, joined Moore at a Wednesday press conference to unveil Teachers First.

Later, Harris got involved in a local race, endorsing Democrat Tina Belge for a state Senate seat in a conservative Upstate district. Belge ultimately lost the special election to now state Sen. Dwight Loftis, R-Greenville, a former House representative.

She has also used her political office to promote issues important to South Carolina.

Shortly after two residents of Columbia’s public housing died of carbon monoxide poisoning, Harris partnered with U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, a Charleston Democrat, to introduce federal legislation requiring carbon monoxide detectors in all such units everywhere.

And when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said South Carolina child welfare agencies could keep children from being fostered or adopted by same-sex couples, Harris was one of many U.S. senators who signed onto a letter of condemnation — and highlighted her efforts in a press release. Incidentally, California is now banning state-sponsored travel to South Carolina because of this policy.

With Moore’s introduction of Teachers First, Harris will further be able to argue that her finger is on the pulse of Democrats in the state.

“I saw the important work that she’s doing on the national level, leading the conversation as far as education and putting our teachers first,” said Moore, who could also get national attention for his promotion of Harris’ proposal. “It’s what I’ve been fighting for since I got here at the General Assembly.”

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Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.
Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.