Sunday, January 11, 2009

Tax Cuts for Teachers

Normally I agree with pretty much everything Tom Friedman writes -- and he has many good ideas in his NYT column today -- but one ill-advised one: "eliminate federal income taxes on all public schoolteachers":
we should also give everyone who is academically eligible and willing a quick $5,000 to go back to school. Universities today are the biggest employers in many Congressional districts, and they’re all having to downsize.

My wife teaches public school in Montgomery County, Md., where more and more teachers can’t afford to buy homes near the schools where they teach, and now have long, dirty commutes from distant suburbs. One of the smartest stimulus moves we could make would be to eliminate federal income taxes on all public schoolteachers so more talented people would choose these careers. I’d also double the salaries of all highly qualified math and science teachers, staple green cards to the diplomas of foreign students who graduate from any U.S. university in math or science — instead of subsidizing their educations and then sending them home — and offer full scholarships to needy students who want to go to a public university or community college for the next four years.

J.F.K. took us to the moon. Let B.H.O. take America back to school.

Effectively, Friedman is calling for an across-the-board pay hike for teachers nationwide "so more talented people would choose these careers".  As I discuss below, I agree with his desire to pay teachers more, but a nationwide across-the-board pay hike is precisely the wrong way to do it.  Obviously if all teachers were suddenly paid $1 million annually, a lot of super talented people would be drawn into the profession.  But within the realm of what's possible, his proposal would be ENORMOUSLY expensive (roughly speaking, 3 million public school teachers at $40,000/year, getting a 25% pay hike = $30 billion/year) and do very little to improve overall teacher caliber -- it's a crude tool that would result in nearly all of the money being wasted. 
As proof, look no further than our nation's experience over the past 30-40 years.  Since 1970, teacher pay has increased about 5% annually (see, right in line with inflation (though teachers are benefitting from much smaller class sizes, so total teacher comp has far exceeded inflation), yet teacher quality has declined significantly (see and
Or consider the sorry case of Newark's public schools -- teachers there are the highest-paid in the nation, at $75,000 on average, with gold-plated benefits and, sadly, iron-clad job security, yet the teachers are, on average, dreadful, as proven by the catastrophic outcomes (see: and
Speaking of Newark, it's a perfect example of how Friedman's proposal could actually do harm.  You might think that with the highest-paid teachers in America, Newark's teacher's union might be more professional like the American Medical Association or the American Bar Association.  But noooo...  Precisely the opposite, in fact -- the extra pay to the teachers translates NOT into higher caliber teachers, but DOES translate into more money and power for the union, which is one of the most thuggish, backward-looking, innovation-qaushing, status-quo-defending in the nation (lest you think I exaggerate, see:, and
So if an across-the-board pay hike isn't the answer, what is?  Fortunately, we have great models like what Michelle Rhee proposing: higher pay in exchange for real accountability and the elimination of absurd job protections that do nothing more than entrench mediocrity.  Or the merit pay system in Denver that Michael Bennet (the new Senator from Colorado) championed?  Or some of the things Joel Klein is doing in NYC like paying teachers at the toughest schools more, paying (trying to pay?) math and science teachers more, and experimenting with a school-wide bonus system for teachers at schools that show improvement?  We need focused tools to pay certain teachers more -- a lot more.  The patient needs 1,000 scalpels, not a huge sledgehammer.
January 11, 2009
Op-Ed Columnist

Tax Cuts for Teachers

Over the next couple of years, two very big countries, America and China, will give birth to something very important. They’re each going to give birth to close to $1 trillion worth of economic stimulus — in the form of tax cuts, infrastructure, highways, mass transit and new energy systems. But a lot is riding on these two babies. If China and America each give birth to a pig — a big, energy-devouring, climate-spoiling stimulus hog — our kids are done for. It will be the burden of their lifetimes. If they each give birth to a gazelle — a lean, energy-efficient and innovation-friendly stimulus — it will be the opportunity of their lifetimes.

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