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Topic: Good Teachers Deserve a Tax Break - Interesting Proposal
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 13,025
Registered: 12/3/04
Good Teachers Deserve a Tax Break - Interesting Proposal
Posted: Oct 8, 1998 4:30 PM
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[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

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'

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

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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