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No taxes for teachers: California tries to hold on to good educators

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The Teacher Recruitment and Retention Act is a proposal that would incentivize new teachers with tax breaks, and keep veteran teachers in the system by eliminating their income tax entirely.

First grade students at Rocketship SI Se Puede elementary school in San Jose, Calif., participate in class.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
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A new bill proposed in the California State Senate would completely eliminate income tax for teachers who have been in the profession for six years. Senate Bill 807, also known as the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Act, is an attempt to provide incentives for teachers to stay in the profession in a state troubled by a shortage of educators.

In many parts of the United States, teachers continue to face low pay and high burnout rates despite the importance of the profession. The California bill would be the first of its kind in both the state and the country to attempt to incentivize veteran teachers in this way. But while most agree that addressing the problem is important, the idea of using the untested strategy has raised questions as to whether such an expensive program would be effective in addressing the larger issues in the teaching industry.

There are a number of reasons for the teacher shortage in California and the rest of the US, says David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy in Baltimore.

"There is a particular shortage of teachers for children with special needs and for those who speak English as a second language," Dr. Steiner tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. "The area shortages have multiple causes, but are especially acute in places like San Francisco where the cost of housing is prohibitive for teachers on their salaries."

In California, high demand and low supply of teachers has resulted in the hiring of many under-qualified teachers and substitutes. Often, current teachers are asked to take on classes outside their fields of expertise.

"There are [also] significant concerns about the health and retirement benefits that are being cut from teacher contracts," John Craven, a professor of education at the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University in New York, tells the Monitor via email. "In some states and localities, the employer contributions to retirement packages are negligible. So teachers seeking to contribute to their own retirement packages face an even greater budgetary constraints (as they relate to low salaries). This is particularly true of new teachers."

All of these problems contribute to the reluctance of potential teachers to commit to the field of education, especially in disadvantaged communities, he adds.

The California bill would attempt to rectify the issue by allowing first-time teachers to receive a tax credit amounting to about a 3.4 percent salary increase. Educators that have been teaching for six years or more, however, would see all income tax disappear completely, bumping up their salaries between 4 and 6 percent for the next 10 years.

All those tax breaks add up to about $617.5 million annually for the state, not an insignificant figure. But by investing in the new system, lawmakers believe that the program would lower the high turnover rate among teachers and economically benefit the state in the long run.

"Teachers are the original job creators," said Democratic state Sen. Henry Stern, who introduced the bill along with fellow Democratic Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, in a statement. "The teaching profession is critical to California’s economic success and impacts every vocation and profession in the state."

Many new teachers in the US burn out quickly, with attrition rates of nearly 8 percent over the past 10 years, according to the Learning Policy Institute. Retirements only account for less than a third of teachers who leave every year. The institute estimates that if attrition rates were brought down to 3 or 4 percent nationally, the US could eliminate teacher shortages altogether.

"This is a big and bold idea to deal with the teacher shortage," Bill Lucia, president of EdVoice, said in a statement. "It is not a one-time money spending bill, it's a way to look at the big issue, and the legislature is reacting positively to it."

While the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Act's approach is a unique solution to the teacher shortage, it is only one of many approaches put forward over the past few years, says Steiner of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.

"A number of districts have established bonuses for effective teachers (in Washington, D.C., it's $25,000) and some states and/or districts have created career ladders where teachers may earn more for taking on roles such as mentors or curriculum experts," says Steiner. "Some states and/or districts have bonuses for teachers willing to teach in high-needs subjects and/or high-needs schools, and some districts subsidize housing costs."

Such programs are a start to give teachers what they need in order to teach students more effectively. But in order for truly significant reforms to happen, the public's perspective on teaching needs to change, say Gina Anderson and Rebecca Fredrickson of the Department of Teacher Education at Texas Woman's University in Denton, Texas.

"A cultural paradigm shift is needed in order to change the perception of teaching as a viable career," they tell the Monitor in an email. "Rather than perpetuating the perspective that teachers are martyrs, teachers need to be portrayed as leaders and innovators."

"The public needs to be informed about the complexities of schools, the diverse makeup and needs of students, and the art and science behind effective teaching," they add.