Tax-Exempt Teachers? Not So Fast, Governor

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California governor Gray Davis is learning a lesson about the perils of giving an apple or two to the state's teachers. And it's all about jealousy. On Sunday, the governor, apparently feeling flush in the midst of California's unprecedented boom, announced a plan to exempt state public school teachers from paying the state income tax — a proposal that would cost California roughly $500 million a year, and would save teachers somewhere between $500 and $1,350 annually. Not an earth-shattering figure, but the governor expressed hope that the exemption might ease the financial burden on underpaid teachers and perhaps help to recruit qualified instructors away from higher-paying jobs. It sounds like a win-win proposal — but it probably will never see the light of day.

While no one, Democrat or Republican, seems to doubt Davis's good intentions, there is widespread and fierce resistance to the proposal. Everyone agrees that teachers should be paid more and given more respect. But why, many state legislators demand, should California reward public school teachers and not members of other admittedly underpaid professions, like firefighters and day care workers? Other critics complain the scheme is overly broad, and would reward superior teachers at the same rate as those who consistently receive dismal reviews. "Davis' plan is very generalized in its approach," says Lance Izumi, director of the Center for School Reform at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy in Sacramento. "Shouldn't privileges like this be based on the merit of the individual teacher?" Whatever their reasoning, most Californians seem to share with Izumi's judgment; education analysts agree that despite strong support from state teachers' unions, Davis' proposal will probably languish briefly in the statehouse before being soundly defeated. Of course, Davis could use that $500 million for an across-the-board pay raise for every teacher in the state of California. But a tax break sounds, well, a lot more tempting.