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Dearborn — Less than a week after sparring with Attorney General Bill Barr in a heated Senate hearing, Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris showed a softer side Monday during an elementary school visit in Dearborn.  

The U.S. senator from California read to students from a rocking chair at Miller Elementary School, where she offered leadership advice and told kids their teachers are “super heroes” who deserve a raise. It was a message she echoed hours later during a meeting with union educators in Detroit.

 “I want to pay your teachers more money,” she said, laughing when the fourth-graders’ heads swiveled toward their teachers. “If you look closely, you’ll see that they’re wearing capes.”

Harris’ ambitious and expensive teacher pay plan — which seeks to provide the average teacher a $13,500 raise — would be a “top priority” if elected, she said later Monday during an American Federation of Teachers union member town hall at Marcus Garvey Academy in Detroit.

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U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris answers questions by 4th graders at Miller Elementary School in Dearborn, Monday, May 6, 2019. Daniel Mears, The Detroit News

“I believe that you can judge — and should judge — a society based on how it treats its children,” she told a receptive crowd of teachers and other educators. “And one of the greatest expressions of love that a society can make toward its children is to invest in their education and, by extension, their teachers.”

As of the 2015-16 school year, full-time public school teachers earned an average of $59,050 per year from all income sources, including district salaries, summer activities and other jobs such as tutoring, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The average base pay was $55,120.

Harris’ plan aims to close what she calls the “teacher pay gap” by providing additional federal funding to states, including a minimum investment and additional incentive funding for states that put their own money into teacher salary increases.

Teacher salaries are historically determined by states or local districts, but Harris’ Department of Education would work with states to set a base salary “goal” for beginning teachers across the country.

The plan could cost $315 billion over 10 years, according to her campaign, which says Harris would pay for the raises by “strengthening” the federal estate tax and cracking down on unspecified tax loopholes that let the wealthy “avoid paying their fair share.”

The Teacher Appreciation Week events capped Harris’ two-day swing through Michigan, which her campaign described as an “important battleground state.” She addressed a crowd of thousands gathered for the Detroit NAACP’s 64th Annual Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner on Sunday evening at Cobo Center.

Harris spent Monday with national AFT President Randi Weingarten and AFT Michigan President David Hecker. They also visited the Academy of Americas in Detroit. U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, also joined Harris at the Miller Elementary stop.

Students welcomed Harris with a handmade sign and banner posted above the door of the school library, where they giggled with excitement awaiting her arrival and counted television cameras set up to film the event.

Harris read aloud from “Each Kindness,” a fictional book with an anti-bullying message written by Jacqueline Woodson, and answered student questions.

“The sign of a real leader is that you’re kind to everybody, and we know that there’s strength in that,” Harris told students.

Speaking with teachers later in Detroit, she made clear that comment was a reference to Republican President Donald Trump.

The subject of the book she read to students was kindness, she noted. “Let me tell you how much our president could learn from a fourth grader.”

Harris touted her teacher pay plan as a way to retain and recruit talented teachers. She wants to provide extra funding for teachers in the “highest-need” schools across the country, and her plan proposes new spending on teacher recruitment, training and professional development programs, particularly at historically black colleges and universities. 

Weingarten called it a “great proposal” that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos of Michigan could learn from. Asked about teacher pay earlier Monday, DeVos jabbed Weingarten by saying she thinks great teachers should earn at least half as much as the well-paid union leader. 

“Instead of actually embracing it, she deflected it,” Weingarten said, suggesting Harris visited more Detroit public schools in a single day than DeVos ever has.

Harris plan has won accolades from public school advocates, but stagnant average teacher salaries are byproducts from “decades of using extra funds to pad” school district payrolls with non-teaching staff," said Ben DeGrow, policy director for the free-market-oriented Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland.

If those ratios had stayed consistent during the past 25 years, existing funding could have been used to give teachers roughly the same type of pay raise Harris is proposing, he said.

“This expensive, top-down push for large, across-the-board pay increases is a policy proposal backed far more by the logic of campaign politics than the research on student achievement,” DeGrow said. “It would be more effective to cut bureaucracy and to boost pay for performance and for subject areas where quality candidates are harder to find.”

Harris said her pay raise plan would benefit roughly 85,000 Michigan teachers and argued a $13,500 raise would amount to a year's worth of mortgage payments or groceries for teachers who sometimes pay for classroom supplies out of their own salaries.

“It means putting a significant dent in student loan debt, which is one of the greatest barriers to teacher staying in the profession, and for so many a disincentive to go into the profession,” she said.

Radewin Awada, principal of Miller Elementary said his school has struggled with “staff shortages across the board.” While he did not want to wade into politics, Awada said he “definitely advocates” for higher pay to attract the best teachers possible.

“They work tremendously hard, and they’re not working with a product, they’re working with our children — the most valuable asset we have as a nation,” he said. “And that’s what people keep overlooking.”

Miller has a high number of at-risk students, according to Awada, who said more than 90 percent of students at his school in Dearborn — an Arab-American population center — qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. He welcomes attention from any leaders who want to engage his students.

 “Many of them are first-generation refugees and immigrants and so forth, (English as a second language) students,” he said. “We especially appreciate females in leadership positions come and read to our students because it is just a powerful thing — a powerful lesson for those girls.”

Harris is the latest in a series of presidential candidates — including Republican President Donald Trump — to visit Michigan well head of 2020 elections.

On the Democratic side, Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Cory Booker of New Jersey spoke in Detroit last week, and U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio and entrepreneur Andrew Yang reportedly campaigned in Michigan over the weekend.

joosting@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jonathanoosting

 

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