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Bernie Sanders Aims to Woo Educators With Ad About Teacher Activism

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign promoted a video Tuesday of West Virginia teachers who went on strike and rallied at the statehouse for higher pay, part of a wave of teacher activism at the state and local levels in recent years.

As competitors in a crowded Democratic primary have courted coveted endorsements from the nation's teachers unions, Sanders has sought to differentiate himself by taking aggressive positions on issues like charter schools. He's also one of several candidates who've called for federal efforts to increase teacher pay, which is largely set at the state and local levels.

"We're out here, collectively mobilizing, to stand up not just for ourselves, but for the children of West Virginia," a teacher says in the video while wearing red, the color associated with Red for Ed teacher activism efforts around the country. Students in her schools need more mental health professionals, she said.

In 2018, a nine-day West Virginia teacher strike resulted in a 5 percent pay raise, and set off a wave of large-scale activism in another five states across the country. Teachers organized again in 2019 to oppose a proposal to expand charter schools and create education savings accounts for some students. (Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, signed legislation allowing charter schools in the state in June.) 

In addition to wooing teachers, Sanders may also be making an appeal to labor organizers in general through the ad, which talks about the value of collective action. The same day his campaign began promoting the video, which was first posted to YouTube in July, Sanders spoke alongside five other candidates at a forum hosted by the AFL-CIO in Philadelphia.

What Bernie Sanders' Education Plan Says About Teachers

Sanders' education plan, which he released in May, calls for a $60,000 minimum teacher salary nationwide and a national floor on per-pupil spending. But it doesn't outline a specific roadmap of how he will accomplish those goals. The plan also calls for tripling Title I funding, which is federal money designated for schools with high enrollments of students from low-income families.

"What encourages me and gives me so much hope about the future is that teachers across the country are standing up and saying enough is enough!" the introduction to that plan says.

Sanders is one of many candidates who've called for higher teacher salary levels, which are typically dictated by state lawmakers and school boards around the country. Others who've made similar calls include former Vice President Joe Biden, who says expanding Title I would allow schools to give educators higher salaries, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and California Sen. Kamala Harris. Sanders' plan says only that he would accomplish a minimum teacher pay level by "working with states." 

What the Public Thinks of Teacher Activism

Polling shows the public is sympathetic to the concerns of teacher activists, including concerns about a need for more school funding. But that sympathy doesn't always translate into support for the higher taxes necessary to boost education funding. 

In a poll released in August by PDK International, 55 percent of teacher respondents said they'd vote to strike for higher salaries. An even larger share said they'd walk off their jobs to get more money for school programs. More than half said they would strike to get a bigger say on standards, curriculum, and testing. In a seperate PDK poll of the general public, about seven in 10 respondents said they'd back a teacher strike for higher pay, and nearly 8 in 10 said they'd support a strike to help teachers gain more influence over academic policies.

Another poll released in August by Education Next found growing public support for teachers unions, and it also found growing support for charter schools. Teacher activists in many states have taken aim at charters, pushing for increased regulations and opposing measures that would allow more of the publicly funded, independently managed schools to open.

Respondents to the Education Next poll were more likely to support increased education funding at the federal level than at state and local levels. A majority of those polled, 60 percent, said the federal government should spend more on K-12. That number jumped to 67 percent when respondents were told the share of education spending that comes from Washington (typically around 10 percent). 

Addtional background: In 2016, after the National Education Association endorsed Hillary Clinton, some of its members complained it didn't give Sanders enough consideration.

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