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Tax Breaks to Solve Teacher Shortage

Faced with an overall shortage of teachers, California is considering exempting teachers who have taught for more than five years from state income tax ("California's Teacher Tax Break," The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 16).  Critics argue that the shortage is exaggerated in order to get higher salaries.  Which side is right?  The answer is more nuanced than either will like. 

According to a survey of 211 school districts in California conducted by the Learning Policy Institute and the California School Boards Association, more than 80 percent reported shortages that have grown progressively worse over the past three years ("State's teacher shortage hitting 'alarming rates' for 2016-17, new survey says," EdSource, Nov. 30, 2016).  But the shortage is overwhelmingly in bilingual education, special education, math and physical sciences.  Moreover, it is largely in cities and rural areas.

Critics claim the shortage refers only to good teachers. They point to state spending on education and the per pupil allotment that have increased by 55 percent over the past six years.  But teachers' salaries in California have not risen even close to that amount.  Further, teachers have been saddled with ever-increasing responsibilities as a result of larger class sizes. The claim that charter schools are not complaining about a lack of qualified teachers is refuted by the turnover rate of charter school teachers who are burned out.

Let's put the proposal in historical perspective. A tax break for teachers is not unprecedented.  For example, pensions of teachers in New York State have long been exempt from state income taxes.  In a high-tax state like New York, that is no small thing.  California is also a high-tax state.  It will be interesting to see the effect a state-tax exemption has - if any - on recruitment and retention there. In any event, it's certainly a step in the right direction.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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