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U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris at a Charleston Black Expo Economic Empowerment Summit on Saturday, March 9, 2019, in North Charleston. Harris is proposing a federal investment to increase teacher pay. File/Andrew Whitaker/Staff

COLUMBIA — As the South Carolina Statehouse continues to consider a pay raise for teachers, one of the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders is proposing to kick in substantial federal help.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., proposed tackling teacher pay shortages at the federal level over the weekend and released more details about the idea Tuesday.

According to an outline of Harris' plan, the average teacher in South Carolina would receive a $9,300 raise, equivalent to a 19-percent pay increase.

The proposal would cost around $315 billion over 10 years, the Harris campaign estimates. It would be paid for by strengthening the estate tax, which currently applies to inherited assets of more than $11 million, and cracking down on loopholes that "let the very wealthiest, with estates worth multiple millions or billions of dollars, avoid paying their fair share."

The S.C. House's budget proposal, which passed earlier this month, provided $159 million to cover at least a 4 percent teacher pay increase, raising the first-year minimum from $32,000 to $35,000.

Under Harris' plan, a federal investment would provide for the first 10 percent of funding for teacher pay raises. From that point on, states would receive $3 from the federal government for every $1 they spend on teacher pay.

South Carolina has turned down similar offers before. The state declined to expand Medicaid when the federal government offered to fund the program at a federal-to-state ratio of 10 to 1, with Republican leaders saying even that would be more than the state can afford.

In several early campaign visits to South Carolina, Harris has often mentioned what she views as the troubling state of education here — an issue that was laid out in detail in The Post and Courier's "Minimally Adequate" series last year. 

"Our teachers are helping us raise our children, and we're not paying them their value," she said at an event in Hemingway earlier this month. 

Education funding has historically come mostly from state and local governments, and observers on both sides of the political aisle were skeptical that a historically conservative state like South Carolina would be open to letting that change.

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Ellen Weaver, president of the conservative Palmetto Promise Institute, said there is a "natural temptation for presidential candidates — Democrat and Republican — to federalize problems like teacher pay when trolling for votes."

She suggested policymakers should instead try to "spend smart, not more."

"We all agree that great teachers should be paid what they're worth," Weaver said. "Unfortunately, federal money always comes with federal strings. If teachers think paperwork is bad now, just wait until they’re reporting directly to Uncle Sam."

More progressive teacher advocates, like SC for Ed founder Lisa Ellis, were encouraged to see presidential candidates like Harris staking out aggressive positions on the issue of teacher pay.

"Any conversation about increasing teacher salaries is awesome," Ellis said. "I'm curious to see where that funding comes from and where South Carolina would make up the difference. ... But I think it's a fantastic idea. I'm super excited to see that education remains a priority and that teacher salaries continues to be a focus of that."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.

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