Tax-Free Teachers?

Larry Sand

California school districts lay off teachers…then two legislators move to fix the “teacher shortage problem.”

In a surreal political moment, California State Senators Henry Stern (D-Los Angeles) and Cathleen Galgiani (D-Stockton) have introduced the “Teacher Recruitment and Retention Act of 2017” which offers a novel incentive for teachers to remain in the profession. Senate Bill 807 would exempt California educators from paying the state income tax after five years on the job, in addition to allowing a tax deduction for the cost of attaining their teaching credential. If passed, the bill is estimated to cost the already burdened California taxpayers an additional $600 million a year. All this is transpiring because of an alleged teacher shortage.

So, let’s see – if we indeed have a shortage, why exactly are districts laying off teachers? In Santa Ana, 287 teachers were just pink-slipped, essentially because the school district couldn’t afford to keep them. Seems that the Santa Ana Educators Association had pushed for and received an across-the-board 10 percent pay raise in 2015. The money had to come from somewhere, and it’s going to come from what would have been used to pay 287 of the newest hired, now soon to be laid off teachers. San Diego, facing a major deficit – much of it due to spiraling pension costs – is about to lay off about 900 recently hired teachers.

In fact, these types of fiscal issues are burdening more and more school districts across the state. So I suppose one could argue that we have a teacher shortage because we are laying them off. But however you identify the problem, the way to solve it is to rejigger teacher union orchestrated state laws and teacher work rules that are mandated in a typical union contract, thereby attracting and maintaining the most talented teachers, rather than giving older, more senior ones – competent or not – more money.

On the state level, defined benefit pensions for teachers, a union must, are causing school districts to go deep into the red and now the Golden (State) Goose is beginning to dry up. A great way to keep young teachers in the field – and ultimately save school districts and the state billions of dollars – would be to offer them a higher salary rather than way-down-the-road retirement benefits that many will never see.

Also, a state issue, the union’s hideous seniority or  “last in, first out” law, one of the statutes that Vergara judge Rolf Treu said “shocks the conscience,” is clearly a deterrent to promising young teachers. Why should a bright, enthusiastic, skilled 20-something enter a field where her worth isn’t appreciated? She knows that no matter how good she is, come tough fiscal times, her job may very well disappear. So she would rather go into a field where her abilities are truly appreciated, and the quality of her work matters more than the number of years she has been employed.

Locally, the unions keep talented teachers from entering and staying in the profession by insisting on a quality-blind way of paying them. In just about every district in the state, public school teachers are part of an industrial style “step and column” salary regimen, which treats them as interchangeable widgets. They get salary increases for the number of years they work, and for taking (usually meaningless) professional development classes. Great teachers are worth more – a lot more – and should receive higher pay than their less capable colleagues. But they don’t. Also, if a district is short on science teachers, it’s only logical to pay them more than other teachers whose fields are over-populated. But, of course, stifling union contracts don’t allow for this kind of flexibility.

Another local way to promote and pay great teachers is to get beyond the smaller-classes-are-always-better myth. To be sure small class-size does help some kids, but for most it matters not a whit. In fact, some kids – like me – did better in bigger classes. But, thanks to union lobbying for more dues-paying members, class sizes are kept small. In fact, as Mike Antonucci writes, “Since 1921 (nationally) we have almost quintupled the number of teachers, more than quintupled the average teacher salary in inflation-adjusted dollars, and also cut the student-teacher ratio in half.” In California, the student-teacher ratio is currently under 20:1. Yet on the 2015 NAEP test, California’s 4th graders ranked 49th in the country in reading and 48th in math. So school districts should be able to give great teachers a stipend and add a few kids to their classes. That would net more quality teachers and higher achieving students at a lower cost to the taxpayers, but the unions won’t allow it.

To achieve badly needed education reforms in California, state legislators and local school board members must stand up to the powerful teachers unions. Until then, all we are doing – SB 807 being the latest example – is putting a heavy coat of lipstick on a bloated tax-sucking pig.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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