California mulls eliminating income tax for teachers
California legislators are hoping a proposal to eliminate income tax for teachers will help attract young people into the profession and keep them there at a time when the state is hemorrhaging educators and lacks a pipeline.
Notably, the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Act, introduced by two state Senate Democrats, is the first of its kind in California and in the country. While a handful of states give retirees tax breaks on their pensions, and others, including Maryland and New Jersey, have toyed with the idea of eliminating income tax for law enforcement officers, it doesn't appear that any have seriously considered cutting the income tax for the teaching profession.
"There's no other state in the country that has singled out teaching in the classroom as a profession that should not be taxed," says Bill Lucia, president and CEO of EdVoice, a grassroots education advocacy organization in California that's backing the proposal.
He continued: "We have a problem in California and we can't deal with a problem that's this serious by tinkering around the edges and putting Band-Aids on it or hiding it. We are hiding the issue. This bill is finally bringing out to the sunshine of California how serious the problem is."
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Teacher shortages are a local issue, with teachers in some parts of states competing for few slots while other parts of the same state are starved for educators. But California has borne the brunt of what's increasingly considered a national teacher shortage crisis.
According to a survey of 211 California school districts, 75 percent reported having a shortage of qualified teachers for the 2016-17 school year, and 80 percent said the shortages have gotten worse since the 2013-14 school year, especially with regard to special education, math, science and bilingual teachers.
To counter the shortage, the state has largely relied on hiring underqualified teachers, filling slots with substitutes or asking educators to teach classes outside their subject area expertise.
Indeed, data from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing and the California Department of Education show that during this school year 155,000 students in California public schools are being taught by adults who lack the required state credentials to be full-time teachers.
For new teachers, the proposal would translate into approximately 3.4 percent salary increase annually. A first-year teacher earning $44,746 a year, for example, would be able to write-off up to $1,265, roughly 2.8 percent of their salary, in addition to offsetting the costs of additional credentials or a master's degree that the state requires.
For veteran teachers, the proposal would be equivalent to a 4 to 6 percent salary increase annually. A year-six teacher with a salary of $59,728 would no longer be taxed $2,483, representing a 4.2 percent salary increase.
Overall, the proposal would cost $617.5 million annually, according to preliminary estimates by EdVoice – $9 million of which would help offset the cost of the additional teacher training the state requires and $608.5 million of which would provide the tax exemption for classroom teaching income.
"[The bill] addresses the immediate teacher shortage and sends a loud and clear message across the state and nation: California values teachers," said state Sen. Henry Stern, a Democrat who co-sponsored the proposal. "We will help train you and we want you to stay in the classroom."
The costs would be offset by short- and long-term benefits. For example, if the bill results in a 50 percent decrease in teacher turnover, as EdVoice predicts it would, California school districts would save $123.5 million annually.
It's unclear whether there's appetite for such an expensive proposal, especially in light of California Gov. Jerry Brown's projected budget deficit of $1.6 billion – though a recent report from the state's Legislative Analyst's Office counters that estimate.
The U.S. is in the throes of the worst teacher shortage since the 1990s, according to the California-based Learning Policy Institute, which estimates that school districts need to hire about 300,000 new teachers.
But some education policy experts are wary the proposal isn't targeted enough to California's specific teacher shortage problems, such as a districts having more difficulty hiring high school teachers as opposed to elementary school teachers, or special education teachers versus social studies teachers.
In fact, according to the Learning Policy Institute study, just 1 percent of districts have trouble hiring social studies teachers, but the proposed bill would give them the same benefit as teachers who are much more in demand.
In addition, the incentive wouldn't kick in until teachers are six years into the profession, one full year after the majority are thought to burn out.
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