What do Genghis Khan, former Gov. Gray Davis of California, and U.S. Sen. John McCain have in common? They’ve all supported the idea of making teachers exempt from taxes. Genghis Khan decreed it. Gray Davis proposed it for state taxes to the California state legislature. And John McCain flirted with the idea in his 2000 presidential campaign.
It’s teachers that matter the most in education. And yet, all the popular reform movements of today—standards, school choice, high-stakes testing—simply fail to provide the incentives to get more talent into the profession. They actually make the profession less attractive. The only real way to improve education is to improve the pool of teachers. Professional-development funds can improve existing teachers only, and only so much.
I wish we could attract more public school teachers from the elite institutions of higher learning, such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. I went to Middlebury College, a selective private school in Vermont, and not many of my classmates went into public school teaching. Most went into law, investment banking, or some other lucrative field. A life of not having to pay taxes might help attract more people from places like Middlebury. As it is now, more preservice teachers are coming from the lowest quartile of the SAT-taking population than from the top. And those from the top who do enter the profession leave it quickly.
Brian Crosby expressed the problem best in his book The $100,000 Teacher: “Many people believe there are too many terrible [teachers], but the fact is, there are too many average ones. For a job as important as teaching, average doesn’t cut it; yet the number of average instructors will continue to rise as long as the pay, working conditions, and respect aren’t there.” Unfortunately, his plan for increasing teachers’ compensation, like many others, is complex, unrealistic, and one that certainly cannot be accomplished in a single stroke by our government.
The federal government has no real mechanism to influence teacher salaries. Lawmakers can give grants to schools to create more teaching positions, but they really have no role in determining the level of compensation for teachers. They can use tax breaks, but the paltry $250 tax breaks they currently give educators are certainly not an incentive to enter the profession.
The federal government could make teaching a much more attractive profession in a single stroke. It could grant K-12 public school teachers a lifetime exemption from ever paying federal income taxes. It’s simple economics. If the president and Congress can give trillions of tax-cut dollars to businesspeople to encourage more investment, why not redirect a small fraction of those cuts to entice a better pool of public school teachers? The No Child Left Behind Act, even with its “highly-qualified teacher” requirements, is inadequate. It just offers sticks to educators, and no carrots.
Is it unfair to single out teachers for such a plum benefit? When I was in the military, they waved bonuses in front of us to get us to sign up for particular military occupational specialty, or MOS, assignments. I took $2,000 to become a mortar gunner. At the time, the Army needed more mortar gunners. Today, some of the military bonuses can be quite large. If you’ve already signed up for the MOS that’s offering a new bonus, you don’t get the bonus. If you sign up for a different MOS, you don’t get the bonus. Unfair perhaps, but the military is more interested in winning wars than being fair.
That’s the approach we need to take with public education. We are only a generation or two from going from being a nation at risk to being a nation in serious trouble. We must view it from a national-security perspective.
Naturally, our citizens will want to know that tax breaks are going to good teachers. So we can offer the tax breaks contingent upon national certification. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards offers a rigorous certification program that is much more meaningful than a master’s degree in education. The problem with a master’s program is that it includes a smorgasbord of electives that may have nothing to do with actual classroom teaching. College courses in education also tend to be more theoretical and less clinical. National-board certification focuses on classroom teaching. The federal government should pick up the cost for teachers wanting to pursue national-board certification, regardless of whether it chooses to grant income-tax exemptions to teachers.
No Child Left Behind provides the sticks. Now let’s see our federal government provide the carrots. We’re going to replace literally millions of teachers over the next few years. Let’s replace them with more graduates of our elite colleges and universities.
A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2006 edition of Education Week as The Tax-Free Teacher