Federal Funds for Teachers Should Get A Failing Grade

Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) wants Uncle Sam to spend $315 billion on teacher salaries. This is dangerous for states, school districts, and is not the role of the federal government.


Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), who is also a current Democrat presidential candidate, recently proposed a new federal program that would spend $315 billion over 10 years to increase teacher salaries across the nation by an average of $13,500. The intent is to raise salaries, especially for new teachers. Senator Harris argues that the program would be paid for by “strengthening the estate tax and addressing its federal tax loopholes.” The plan would not be entirely funded by the federal government and it would require states to spend $1 for every $3 the federal government would spend. The fiscal impact on states is not clear, but The Wall Street Journal reports that the plan would have the federal government provide “75 percent of the additional funding for salaries if states agree to maintain long-term investments.” Senator Harris’ presidential campaign argues that this proposal, if enacted, would increase teacher salaries by an estimated 22 percent.

This proposal brings up several important questions and even some warnings for policymakers. The first concern is that this policy would place a reliance on the federal government for a portion of Iowa’s teacher salaries. Iowa already receives $8.5 billion in aid from the federal government and federal funding is anything but certain.

As an example of this uncertainty, just last fall Congress cut funding to the Children’s Health Insurance Program.  This cut required Iowa to spend an additional $30 million annually to replace the federal dollars that supported the Healthy and Well Kids in Iowa insurance program. Would it be prudent for Iowa teachers to possibly lose some of their earned wages because of a federal cutback?

Teachers who are succeeding in the classroom deserve to be paid well, but salaries should be left to local school districts to determine without interference from the federal government. If this program were enacted and later repealed or reduced, would the Iowa legislature turn to income tax payers to make up the shortfall?  Would local school districts be prepared to makeup the difference of lost wages by increasing property taxes?

A second concern is federal aid to the states often comes with strings attached. This means that states and localities must follow certain regulations to receive the federal funds. Frederick M. Hess, who is a Resident Scholar and Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, asked some of the “big questions” of this proposal such as “how intrusive federal bureaucrats would need to get to ensure that federal dollars actually increased salaries and didn’t lead to local schools simply downshifting their own efforts to boost teacher pay.” Would Iowa school districts be allowed, because of the federal funds, to reallocate local tax dollars away from teacher salaries and toward other programs? “How soon would Congress start attaching clumsy, one-size-fits-all directives regarding teacher qualifications, evaluation, or which staff qualify as ‘teachers,’” asked Hess?

Finally, the federal government has no constitutional power to either provide or supplement teacher salaries. In fact, if Senator Harris’ plan became law it would establish a new precedent for the federal government to start funding portions of teachers salaries, which is actually the responsibility of local governments.

Iowa already relies on too many federal funds. It would not be prudent for Iowa teachers or the school districts to rely on the federal government to help increase salaries. Iowa teachers do deserve to be paid well but increasing salaries must be decided locally and not tied to the uncertain fiscal stability of the federal government.  Our legislators in Washington D.C. have already burdened us all with a $22 trillion (and growing) national debt.

State and local governments are too easily enticed with the siren song of federal funds. Whether those funds are Senator Harris’ $315 billion teacher salary plan or any other federal program, state and local governments need to understand that Uncle Sam’s spigot will eventually run dry.

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