For several years, the question of just how valuable teachers are to society has been implicit in the opinion polls and political discourse that have made improving public schools a national priority.
Now that question is about to become explicit.
California - frequently an innovator in public policy, but a laggard in school reform - is proposing exempting teachers from state income taxes, distilling the national debate to these questions:
Are teachers more valuable than entertainers or professional athletes? How do they stack up against police officers and nurses? What about firefighters?
And if they rank at the top of the list, should they get preferential tax treatment?
While many states and school districts across the country are developing ways to aid teachers, the California plan goes further and on a larger scale than anything yet tried elsewhere.
For critics, it's a harebrained attempt at social engineering that will strip fairness from the tax code and create a backlash as other low-paid workers wonder why they don't get special treatment.
But supporters say it will, at a minimum, crystallize the issue of a teacher's worth to a society that values and increasingly depends on top-notch education for its technology-driven economy.
"We welcome the focus" on the comparative worth of teachers to other jobs, says Mary Bergen, head of the California Federation of Teachers. "A backlash may come, but I'm not too worried about that."
Others are. Bruce Fuller, a professor of public policy and education at the University of California at Berkeley, reckons that the initial reaction from middle-class voters distressed about the state of education will be favorable. "They'll like the idea because of what it says about the importance of teachers," he says.
Just dues or special-interest politics?
But over time, Dr. Fuller says, the move will begin to look like "special-interest politics at its worst."
The special interest involved here is the state's powerful teachers union, which has criticized Gov. Gray Davis's education reform program to date as too timid. That's not a description anyone will attach to this proposal.
The idea is financially feasible because of California's flush budget. Soaring tax revenues will give the state $13 billion more in income this year than expected. That has given the governor an enormous pot of gold to sprinkle over favored projects and issues.
Already, Governor Davis has promised to boost state education funding by about $2 billion, which in one fell swoop will raise the state's per pupil spending close to the national average. California has lagged well below average, and the teachers union had threatened to put the issue on the November ballot.
In addition to eliminating state income taxes for public-school teachers, Davis has also proposed a one-time tax rebate to all taxpayers. If approved, single filers would get a check later this year for $150 and joint filers a rebate of $300.
Both proposals show a savvy approach to easing the tax burden, say analysts.
In California, and the US as a whole, there is no evident groundswell for lower taxes. Yet a number of states have enacted tax relief, usually with one-time rebates or lowering targeted levies, like the automobile excise tax. That is a far different approach than the broad reduction in income- and property-tax rates that were demanded in the late 1970s.
Indeed, Davis was chief of staff when Jerry Brown's administration was blindsided by California's tax revolt in 1976. Some analysts see that painful experience at work in Davis's carefully targeted move on taxes this year.
Whatever the motive, the proposal faces some tough sledding. Influential members of the Democratic-controlled legislature have called the idea bad tax policy and unfair to many other important categories of workers.
Taking a page from federal policy
Using the tax code for social ends has become more common at the federal level, with tax credits aimed at the poor, children, and a host of other categories. But it is a relatively unused tool at the state level.
"It has appeal because it's neat and clean," says Fuller. It puts more money - in this case $500 to $1,300 - directly into the pockets of teachers, rather than just giving it to school districts. Still, Fuller doubts this approach will really entice more teachers to enter or stay in the profession. And he's also worried about the fairness issue.
But Davis makes no bones about wanting to be fair. As he noted in announcing the proposal, "I say to you now that being a teacher is the most important thing you can do for your country in the year 2000."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society