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California Bill Would Exempt Veteran Teachers From State Income Taxes

Two California state senators think the solution to the state's teacher shortages can be found in its tax code.

If it passes, Senate Bill 807 would exempt teachers with more than five years of experience from paying state income taxes for the next ten years. That would essentially give every veteran teacher a 4 percent to 6 percent raise overnight. The bill also hopes to remove some of the barriers for new teachers entering the profession by giving them tax credits to help cover the costs of the trainings required to become a fully certified teacher in the Golden State.

Teacher Beat talked with Bill Lucia, the president and CEO of EdVoice, the nonprofit behind the campaign, about the details of the proposal and whether the bill is politically viable.

Why is this bill necessary?

It's about thinking differently about these shortages, thinking bigger and bolder than just filling the acute shortages. It's about going beyond the rhetoric that we value teachers. We want to make it a better environment for veteran teachers to stay and make it more appealing for new teachers and career switchers to enter the profession. Because of the cuts during the Great Recession, we are seeing some new teachers having the costs of their training deducted from their paychecks.  

In the past, some of the shortages were handled because they were partly artificial—stemming from choices like class-size reduction policies. So the way to deal with those shortages was granting class-size waivers, but the shortage we have today is a shortage of warm bodies when class sizes are already reaching into the 30s and 40s. You can repeal class-size limits, but you can't repeal demography. Over a third of our teachers are over 50. We have 6,100 people leading classrooms who just have a fingerprint background check and nothing else, no training to be a teacher. These emergency-permit teachers are in charge of educating 155,000 kids a day. So far we've just been tinkering around the edges—policies like loan forgiveness if teachers commit to teach in hard-to-staff schools—but not doing anything to tackle the underlying problems.

Is this really the best use of resources, what about increasing state aid to schools?

We have dug ourselves out of the recession. We're in the black. The voters have approved new taxes. So the question is: If you really believe in what the state constitution says, that education is the state's number one priority, let's make sure teachers are really considered important going forward.  By going at this through the tax code, we are not taking money out of other areas of the school budget. Looking at the state's general fund, this is like half of 1 percent of the $122.8 billion budget. In California, we don't have a statewide salary schedule, each district has one, but what the governor and legislators do have is the tool of the tax code.

 Is anything like this happening elsewhere in the country?

This would be novel. While some states don't have any income tax, we would be the only state in the nation to have exemptions for teachers. Some states have explored tax credits to help teachers pay for supplies in their classrooms. In California, the training costs that teachers can incur, depending on the district, can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. We don't know of any proposal like this that has gotten as far as people in the governor's office weighing whether to suggest a veto.

 How do you make sure the teachers you're recruiting and retaining are great educators?

We know that training, is an important ingredient, we don't take issue with all the training requirements. The commission on teacher credentialing has retooled a lot of requirements, because a California classroom today looks a lot different than in the 1970s. There are 3.9 million kids that are English-language learners and receive free and reduced-price lunch. It's not the same demography that teachers were trained for. It's about recognizing that and getting new teachers trained for that environment. High-poverty schools disproportionally have higher teacher turnover. Often as soon as they get trained, teachers are leaving these schools. We need people committed to staying, who say, "I love kids and I want to teach where I grew up," We want to create an environment where those teachers say, "I'm here because I want to be here, and I can afford to do that." There is no silver bullet. The one thing we do know is figuring out the teacher shortage issues, we talk a lot about teachers being important, but we don't treat the profession that way.

 What are the odds this makes it into law?

I don't know the odds, but the chances are better than they've been in a decade. We can afford it, we have the money in the general fund and voters have committed to higher taxes for the next ten years. We also know we have to do something. We're delighted we have two lead authors in the senate and two coauthors in the assembly. One thing politicians get really shy about is doing anything in the tax code, but our bill is only four pages, you can read it in a few minutes.

So what happens next in this campaign?

We are going to do a statewide poll, we are in the field getting information right now. We want to know outside of the Sacramento echo chamber what do Californians think. We are hearing that voters love it and don't blink at the price tag. We are going to get that information in front of policymakers. Voters know this is important, that we need to do it, so it's about making sure the policymakers feel comfortable that the state is behind them.


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