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In bid to recruit teachers, California weighs income tax exemption

Here’s one innovative approach to solving a nationwide teacher shortage: Exempt educators altogether from paying income taxes.

That’s the proposal out of California, according to a report this weekend from the U.S. News & World Report.

It comes as states, including North Carolina, struggle to bait young people into joining a profession notorious for long hours and low pay. In North Carolina, it’s a major problem, with state reports pointing to droves of exiting teachers amid waning interest in teaching programs in the university system. 

Officials say California’s proposal marks the first time a U.S. state has considered such a landmark tax exemption for teachers, although states have talked over similar proposals for law enforcement officers.

From the U.S. News & World Report:

“There’s no other state in the country that has singled out teaching in the classroom as a profession that should not be taxed,” says Bill Lucia, president and CEO of EdVoice, a grassroots education advocacy organization in California that’s backing the proposal.

He continued: “We have a problem in California and we can’t deal with a problem that’s this serious by tinkering around the edges and putting Band-Aids on it or hiding it. We are hiding the issue. This bill is finally bringing out to the sunshine of California how serious the problem is.”

Teacher shortages are a local issue, with teachers in some parts of states competing for few slots while other parts of the same state are starved for educators. But California has borne the brunt of what’s increasingly considered a national teacher shortage crisis.

According to a survey of 211 California school districts, 75 percent reported having a shortage of qualified teachers for the 2016-17 school year, and 80 percent said the shortages have gotten worse since the 2013-14 school year, especially with regard to special education, math, science and bilingual teachers.

To counter the shortage, the state has largely relied on hiring underqualified teachers, filling slots with substitutes or asking educators to teach classes outside their subject area expertise.

Indeed, data from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing and the California Department of Education show that during this school year 155,000 students in California public schools are being taught by adults who lack the required state credentials to be full-time teachers.

For new teachers, the proposal would translate into approximately 3.4 percent salary increase annually. A first-year teacher earning $44,746 a year, for example, would be able to write-off up to $1,265, roughly 2.8 percent of their salary, in addition to offsetting the costs of additional credentials or a master’s degree that the state requires.

For veteran teachers, the proposal would be equivalent to a 4 to 6 percent salary increase annually. A year-six teacher with a salary of $59,728 would no longer be taxed $2,483, representing a 4.2 percent salary increase.

Overall, the proposal would cost $617.5 million annually, according to preliminary estimates by EdVoice – $9 million of which would help offset the cost of the additional teacher training the state requires and $608.5 million of which would provide the tax exemption for classroom teaching income.

“[The bill] addresses the immediate teacher shortage and sends a loud and clear message across the state and nation: California values teachers,” said state Sen. Henry Stern, a Democrat who co-sponsored the proposal. “We will help train you and we want you to stay in the classroom.”

The costs would be offset by short- and long-term benefits. For example, if the bill results in a 50 percent decrease in teacher turnover, as EdVoice predicts it would, California school districts would save $123.5 million annually.

N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper

As the report notes, it’s unclear whether the idea will gain any traction, even in a state as traditionally left-leaning as California.

However, it comes at a time when states across the country brainstorm ways to lure new teachers. In his budget proposal, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper proposed restoring the state’s now-defunct Teaching Fellows Program, offering scholarships to prospective teachers in exchange for a commitment to work in North Carolina schools.

GOP leaders in the N.C. General Assembly, who voted controversially to chop the popular program in 2011, offered their Republican take on a new Teaching Fellows last week, with a focus on math, science and special education.

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