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Kamala Harris unveils $315 billion plan to boost teacher pay

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Image: Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks at a presidential campaign rall
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks at a presidential campaign rally at Texas Southern University in Houston on March 23, 2019. -
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Loren Elliott Reuters
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WASHINGTON — In the first major policy rollout of her presidential campaign, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., unveiled a plan on Tuesday to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to boost teacher salaries.

Billed as "the largest investment in teachers in American history," the plan would devote $315 billion in federal funding over the next 10 years toward programs that would subsidize pay for public K-12 educators and reward state and local governments for raising them even higher. It would be paid for by as-yet unspecified changes to the estate tax, which currently applies only to inheritances over $11.4 million for individuals and $22.8 million for married couples.

Harris previewed the plan in a speech at Texas Southern University over the weekend in which she said greater school funding was needed "to bridge the gap between helplessness and hope," repeating a quote by President Lyndon B. Johnson upon his signing of legislation to expand aid to impoverished schools.

According to the Harris campaign, the goal is to eventually increase teacher pay by an average of $13,500 per person, putting it in line with typical salaries for other employees with college degrees. Campaign materials pointed to research by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute that found teachers make 11 percent less than college-educated workers on average in combined salary and benefits.

Under the California senator's plan, the federal government would finance 10 percent of the total pay increase for the first year and then pay out 3 dollars to states for every 1 dollar they put into additional salaries.

It would commit additional funds to further increase salaries for teachers in highest-need schools along with a "multi-billion dollar investment" in career development for educators. Half of it would go toward teachers studying at historic black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other institutions with predominantly minority students.

The campaign bills these measures as a way to train, attract, and retain teachers in poorer communities where schoolshave grown more racially segregated in recent decades.

The Harris proposal comes amid an extended period of tumultuous fights over education funding, including strikes in places like West Virginia and more recently Los Angeles and Oakland. The protests, walkouts and strikes played a role in the midterm electionsas teachers ran for office and Democratic candidates argued that tax cuts in some Republican-led states had left schools underfunded.

Funding for K-12 education is primarily dictated by state and local governments. The Harris proposal appears to signal that national candidates are looking for ways to capture the activist energy among teachers — a valuable constituency in a Democratic primary —by expanding the federal government's role.

"We've had a decade of disinvestment in public education," Catherine Brown, a senior fellow at Center for American Progress Action who consulted with Harris on the plan, told NBC News. "It's a national problem that demands different kinds of thinking and a national solution, and I think she's responding to that."