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Educators Split on Tax Exemption

Budget: Some are skeptical about Davis' plan for teachers, but local officials widely praise other school benefits the governor proposes.


Echoing reaction across the state, Ventura County educators are divided over a new proposal by Gov. Gray Davis to exempt public school teachers from paying state income taxes, with some praising the plan and others expressing skepticism.

Kristi Colell, who teaches art at Newbury Park High School, said the state should increase salaries rather than give teachers a perk that would soon be demanded by police, firefighters and other labor groups.

"I think we are opening Pandora's box," Colell said. "If the state gives one government employee a tax break, then every government employee is going to want one."

But Ventura Unified School District Supt. Joseph Spirito praised the initiative as a potent lure for college graduates to become teachers in a time when districts are struggling to find new recruits.

"The whole issue is we are not getting people to come into our profession because of the pay," Spirito said. "It's not taking away from the other service professions."

Under the plan, contained in Davis' revised budget unveiled Monday, a teacher making $50,000 a year would save $1,350 in state income taxes while one paid $35,000--close to the starting salary in some districts--would save about $500 a year.

Although the plan to eliminate the state income tax has been controversial, local school officials praised a host of other proposals aimed at raising both student performance and teacher prestige.

Other education benefits in the budget include $400 million for schools to buy computers and connect them to the Internet, $300 million to help immigrant children and their parents learn English, and $500 million for teacher bonuses at schools where standardized test scores improve.

The governor also set aside $1.84 billion in additional funding for districts to spend however they want. The largest portion of that pie would probably go to increasing teacher salaries, administrators say, but districts also plan to use the funds to restore art and music programs and to help low-performing students.

"It is the most wonderful time to be in educational leadership," said Ventura County Supt. of Schools Chuck Weis. "To have the kind of support we have in Sacramento is phenomenal."

The governor announced several education proposals over the weekend and officially released his spending plan for fiscal year 2000-01 on Monday. The Democrat-controlled Legislature still must approve the initiatives before they are signed into law. Altogether, Davis is proposing to boost state aid to schools by $3.5 billion, pushing education spending beyond $27 billion next year.

Davis on Saturday announced his plan to spend $545 million of the budget surplus to exempt teachers from paying state personal income tax. He said he wants California to recognize that being a teacher "is the most important thing you can do for your country in the year 2000."

But some legislators and teachers have questioned his motives, arguing that he is trying to smooth relations with the California Teachers Assn., which has roundly criticized another of Davis' education proposals linking student test scores with teacher merit pay.

Supt. Bill Studt said the Oxnard Union High School District also faces teacher shortages, especially in math, science and special-education classes. But Studt said he doesn't think that eliminating state taxes will solve the problem. Rather, the state should focus on improving teacher salaries and working conditions, he said.

Conejo Valley Unified Supt. Jerry Gross said he doesn't know if the income tax break is the answer.

"But we have a crying need for good teachers, and so far these initiatives raising salaries haven't been enough to recruit people," he said.

But Weis said that even if the proposal is rejected Davis has made a strong statement--that teaching is among the most important professions in the state.

The plan to tie bonuses to student performance has also drawn mixed reviews from educators. Under the proposal, teachers and administrators would receive $3,000 bonuses if their students' scores on the Stanford 9 test rise by 15%. Some educators say that the financial incentives will motivate teachers to raise their students' scores but others argued that teachers can't control important factors that affect learning, such as parent participation and students' language ability.

Steve Blum, president of the Ventura Unified Education Assn., compared measuring good teaching to measuring good parenting.

"You're a good teacher because you care about kids, you work your tail off and do your job well," he said. "That's not something you can measure just by test scores."

Educators across the county applauded the governor's plan to shift $1.84 billion to schools--a measure that could add up to nearly $40 million for local campuses.

"This is absolutely incredible," Spirito said. "In the past, whenever we did get money from the state, it was . . . restricted" to specific programs.

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