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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Davis Goes From Troublemaker to Teacher's Pet

May 15, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Right up front, I'll confess to a conflict: My wife is a high school teacher. One daughter is an elementary teacher.

A close friend since college also teaches. So does his wife.

You get the idea: I can't go home, sit down to a Christmas dinner or chase a golf ball without hearing about education. About administration blather, a ramshackle classroom or the latest misguided "reform." Or an outstanding student who just won a big scholarship or merely said something witty.

I see firsthand the late night paper grading--and hear the phone calls to alert some inattentive parent, or arrange speech practice with a star student after school.

Sure, there are long (unpaid) vacations, decent health care and an excellent pension plan. But the job stinks--unless you really, deep down, love the kids and feel a mission to help them learn. If not, you probably won't last and shouldn't.

You might have the calling, energy and skills and still bail out because the pay borders on insulting for a professional with five or more years college: $48,000 average, ranging from roughly $28,000 for beginners to about $60,000 for long-timers with master's degrees.

One-third of teachers quit within five years; 300,000 new ones will be needed this decade.

That's why Gov. Gray Davis' proposal Saturday was so intriguing--indeed bold for a governor not known for boldness.

"Like, where in the hell did that come from?" asked Assembly Republican Leader Scott Baugh of Huntington Beach.

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Davis' controversial idea is to exempt all K-12 teachers from paying the state income tax on their public school salaries.

Tax-free income. Sounds better than it is. The state tax break would range from $500 to $1,350, depending on the pay scale--the equivalent of 1.5% to 3% raises. Figure at least 15% of it going to the feds because there'd be less to deduct on the federal tax form.

But the boost to teacher morale would be incalculable.

"This will send a clarion call across America that California truly values its teachers," Davis told reporters.

Answering Baugh's question, Davis said the idea, in essence, came from a Republican president: Dwight D. Eisenhower. With Sputnik circling the globe in 1957 and Americans fearing Soviet technological superiority, Ike proposed free, federally funded college educations for engineering majors.

"He said there's no profession more valuable to our national security than being an engineer," Davis recalled. "I say in the year 2000 there's no profession more valuable to America's economic and national security than teaching. . . .

"If you teach in California, we're going to reward you in a way we reward no other profession."

The first person I told was my wife. She just shrugged. "It'll never pass," she said.

Teachers tend to be realists, even if they do inspire students to follow their dreams.

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"It just smacks of a political payoff," asserted GOP leader Baugh, alluding to the $2 mil-

lion-plus that the California Teachers Assn. spent helping Davis get elected in 1998. "To give teachers special tax treatment is wrong."

Myself, I've always questioned the special tax treatment we give people just because they produce a lot of babies--babies who soon clog classrooms.

For Davis' proposal to pass, Republican support will be needed. But that's not his biggest problem. It's fellow Democrats.

"It sets a very bad precedent," said liberal Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco). "Why not firefighters? Cops? Social workers? If you want to do something for teachers, increase their base pay."

Good idea. Take the $500-million cost of the tax exemption and pour it into salary hikes. Not as glitzy, but it's still money--and helps pay for some classroom supplies teachers must buy.

New Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks), a Davis centrist, just sort of gulped. "Look, we pay 'em nothing and treat 'em horribly, so we've got to do something to create an environment that attracts teachers," Hertzberg said. "But I'm concerned about the policy implications. My instinct is it doesn't have a lot of trajectory."

Regardless, CTA President Wayne Johnson was "real impressed." Like many teachers, he had been furious with Davis in recent months.

"The guy is taking a chance here and showing real leadership," Johnson said. "Teachers will take it as a sign of respect. There will be genuine appreciation. It will help him immensely."

So Davis not only has displayed imagination in public policy, but once again finesse in politics. The teachers' villain could become their hero. At least, that's what my focus group shows.

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