Charleston, South Carolina (CNN)2020 could become the year of the teacher.
Democrats see energy behind teachers strikes as a force in 2020
After teachers in California, Kentucky, Oklahoma and a host of other states went on strike for a series of demands in 2018 and 2019, ranging from better pay to more support in the classroom, Democratic presidential candidates and operatives within their campaigns have stepped up their outreach to teachers' unions, hoping to seize on the energy that propelled nationwide teachers strikes.
To do that, candidates are putting policy behind their push for support. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont wants to create a $60,000 salary floor for public school teachers and a ban on new for-profit charter schools. Sen. Kamala Harris of California is pitching an average teacher pay raise of $13,500. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is pledging to name a teacher as her education secretary should she win in 2020.
"Part of how I'm going to make education better is to make sure that we pay teachers more," Harris said in Michigan this month. "And it's also going to be about making sure there are the resources in the classrooms that help you have all the tools you want so that you can discover the wonders of science and math and art and music, and so you can do whatever you want to do."
The American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.7 million educators across the country, has held public town halls with the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Former Vice President Joe Biden will headline a federation event with a town hall in Houston on Tuesday. And over the last few months, Sens. Harris, Sanders, Warren and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio have all participated in the federation town halls.
The National Education Association, which boasts nearly 3 million members, has seen focused attention from nearly every 2020 candidate, including personal meetings with union President Lily Eskelsen García. Candidates, according to a union operative, have solicited the union's ideas on their respective education plans and the union has reciprocated by looking to put candidates in front of audiences full of teachers.
The early and sustained engagement represents a widely held belief inside Democratic presidential campaigns: Teachers unions are fired up, hungry to protest and eager to back a candidate who understands why they walked out of classrooms.
"It's not politics as usual," said Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers. "No one reflexively votes in a certain way. They may have, but they certainly don't now."
At the federation town hall in Detroit for Harris, Weingarten told CNN that the teacher union vote was awakening for the 2020 election, fueled by the strikes of the last two years.
"If people don't sit on the sidelines and think things can be better in the United States than what we currently have, if people really feel empowered and believe, then it's going to be a very, very effective and potent force," Weingarten said.
García, the head of the National Education Association, said her union is "without a doubt seeing more energy than we have ever seen before" and that has led to an uptick in interest from 2020 candidates.
"We are kind of on everyone's speed dial," said García. "And it hasn't always been that way."
García said 2020 candidates are, so far, reaching out more for information than outright support and are asking the union about research on teacher pay, support inside the classroom and general funding for education in different states.
"They are asking all the right questions," she said.
One reason Democratic presidential candidates have seized on issues involving teachers is the personal nature of many of their stories, especially those who spend hours in the classroom and then have to pick up second jobs to make ends meet.
Zachary Viscidi works as a middle school social studies teacher by day and then drives a pedicab by night here in historic Charleston. His days often begin at 7 a.m., and sometimes he carts tourist from site to site until 2 a.m.