All fixes to our nation’s education travails should start with improving the economic plight of our K-12 teachers.
As April 15 approaches each year, most of us line up to pay our fair share of the federal tax burden. It is time—in fact, it is way past time—for America’s K-12 teachers to be given federal income-tax relief. And we will all be the beneficiaries when they get it.
I don’t make this call lightly—and here’s why it makes sense.
According to surveys, the public and teachers want an increase in teacher pay. Of course, there are other pressing issues, including better facilities, better curricula, better-trained administrators, and greater parent involvement. But responses to these needs, because they involve overcoming ingrained bureaucratic obstacles or instilling personal motivation, take years to ripple through the system.
So, let’s start by simply eliminating federal income taxes on the earnings of any K-12 teacher teaching at an accredited school. Effective salaries would immediately rise to more livable levels, and improved quality would follow right behind.
Our country has a history of using the tax code to reward what we as a society determine are desirable social behaviors. We agree it’s important to encourage homeownership, for example, so we allow homeowners to deduct all sorts of related costs. Back in the 1960s, because their work was deemed so important, we gave income-tax relief to VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) and Peace Corps volunteers, and today we give substantial relief to our courageous and patriotic active-duty military personnel. But teachers are just as patriotic and just as committed, and their contributions to our nation’s vibrancy and economic well-being are even greater.
Right now, the only tax benefit available to teachers is paltry and cumbersome—and not really a benefit at all. If teachers buy out of their own pockets up to $250 worth of classroom supplies, and if they keep all the receipts, they can deduct from their taxes what they spent of their own money.
Even today, as Congress addresses the president’s competitiveness initiative, the Protecting America’s Competitive Edge Act, and provides more funding for math and science instruction—all admirable indeed—there is nothing being done at the federal level to fix teachers’ chronically low wages. These low wages are keeping our best and brightest from wanting to become teachers, and are each year driving 15 percent of teachers to leave their vocation.
Although the United States has approximately 3 million K-12 teachers, their aggregate federal income taxes run only about $15 billion to $20 billion a year, which is a tiny six-tenths of 1 percent of the U.S. Treasury’s expected total receipts.
As with any material change to the tax code, we would need to “pay” for it. But there are many thoughtful ways to do this, and the benefit to the nation is certainly worth the effort. For example, the entire cost could be covered either from the staggering $290 billion of uncollected taxes owed to the Treasury, or by simply not making permanent a very small percentage of the scheduled future tax reduction for the wealthiest 5 percent of American taxpayers.
All informed and sensitive citizens, starting with our teachers, want high teaching standards and accountability. They also want ongoing teacher development. But most of all, when asked, they want the nation’s teachers to be fairly and adequately compensated for their services and contributions.
All fixes to our nation’s education travails should start with easing the economic plight of our K-12 teachers. Federal income-tax relief is the very best starting point, and it would be a powerful step toward assuring the long-term vibrancy of our society and the health of our national economy.
A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2006 edition of Education Week as Teacher Income Taxes: A Break Overdue