[Note: I think this is an interesting proposal, in the U.S. context. Note also the very short article tacked on after this article.]
Good Teachers Deserve a Tax Break
Wall Street Journal / New York -- October 5, 1998, p. A 30
By John Silber
Massachusetts experienced a sharp reality check in April, when we joined the ranks of states testing prospective teachers. On the first round, 59% of the candidates -- who a year ago would have been licensed -- failed.
The results of these tests -- which were no harder than those given to 10th-graders -- elicited outrage from a public previously in denial. They also substantially reduced the pool of potential teachers in Massachusetts, even though a ballooning student population will require more teachers. Clearly, it will also require more competent teachers, who not only meet minimum requirements but are knowledgeable in their subjects.
One reason for the high failure rate is that we pay teachers as if we think their services are unimportant, and thus fail to attract high-quality applicants. Compared with other professionals, teachers start out low on the pay scale and never climb very high. In Massachusetts, the average starting salary is $25,000; the average maximum, $50,000. By contrast, law school graduates frequently earn $100,000 in their first year. New MBAs make nearly as much. Even toll collectors for the Massachusetts Turnpike, needing only a high school education, have a base salary of $32,000.
The prospects for narrowing these gaps are next to nonexistent. Many cities, their tax bases devastated by middle-class flight, cannot afford more for schools. In the suburbs, parents paying private tuition are unlikely to support higher taxes for the education of other parents' children.
The federal government is the only realistic hope for increasing teachers' salaries. Were the government to make the first $30,000 of a teacher's salary tax-exempt, it would in effect be providing the equivalent of a $9,000 raise. Such an exemption would have the added merit of not requiring a new bureaucracy or immense handling charges for routing taxpayer money through Washington.
This exemption should be available only to first-rate teachers: Those applying for the exemption should be required to pass a demanding test of their literacy and demonstrate mastery of their subject matter. This test should be designed by a panel of eminent teachers and scholars outside the public education establishment. It could be administered by the states, which might well decide to adopt it as their certification test.
Such a test is the only practical way to ensure that money is spent to attract and retain truly excellent teachers. In the unlikely case that all of the nation's teachers qualified for the exemption, the cost would be only 1.1% of the federal budget, or about $20 billion a year. On the more likely assumption that half would qualify, the cost would be about $10 billion.
If 0.55% of the federal budget is more than we're willing to pay to recruit and retain qualified teachers, the exemption could be restricted to elementary school teachers, who make up half the total number of teachers. Elementary education is the crucible of educational success and failure, and by improving its teachers we will also improve the performance of secondary school students. Approximately $5 billion, or 0.28% of the budget, would provide exemptions for half the nation's elementary teachers.
Failed education is an extravagant waste of resources. A clever advertising slogan says it all: If you think education is expensive, try ignorance. Washington spends $36,000 a year on each federal prisoner, and the states average $21,000. Prisoners pay little or no taxes, and once released, if they do not return to crime, they are as likely to be on welfare as to be gainfully employed taxpayers. By the narrowest definition of the term welfare, we spend some $250 billion a year on it. If by better teaching we alter a child's life path from that of a prisoner or welfare recipient to that of a self-reliant citizen, we pluck a brand from the burning and enrich the treasury. It is hard to imagine a more desirable turnaround.
Our school crisis has more causes than low pay for teachers. But if we wait until we can address all of these, we will never address any. The provision of teachers worthy of our children is a fundamental step in reversing the decline of the schools. The time to take this step is now. --- Mr. Silber is chancellor of Boston University and chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education.
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