With a completely straight face, California Gov. Gray Davis has made
one of the looniest proposals ever advanced by an otherwise serious
politician. He wants to permanently exempt all accredited public school
teachers in California from paying state income taxes. He hopes this
bold innovation will "send a clarion call across America."
While the governor is not clear about just whose attention he is
trying to get with his clarion call, it would not be a stretch to
suggest that there are three audiences. First, he is sending a message
to the Democratic Party that he is a man with big ideas who would make a
great vice presidential running mate for Al Gore. Second, he is sending
a signal to the big-time labor bosses who control the teachers' unions
that he appreciates the millions of dollars they contribute to
Democrats. Third, he is trying to convince the people of California that
he is very serious about reforming one of the worst run systems of
government schools in America.
Advertisement - story continues below
Alas, the proposal has a number of obvious problems. It clearly
violates the constitutional principle of equality before the law. It has
the reductive effect of rewarding incompetent teachers as well as
excellent ones. It discriminates by not applying to accredited teachers
in the private sector. It opens up a proverbial Pandora's box of
hundreds of other constituencies, many of whom dedicate much of their
energy trying to find more and better ways of convincing the government
to send them more money. And it has precious little, if anything, to do
with reforming education in California.
The prospects are not good that Davis' proposal will be approved. The
sentiment against it was reflected in a crisp editorial in a major
Northern California newspaper, the Modesto Bee. The headline of the
editorial said it all: "The Governor's Gimmick." The sub-headline read,
"Davis shouldn't make teachers a privileged tax caste."
The Davis proposal is a study in unintended consequences. Recently,
California launched a program to improve teacher performance by reducing
class size. When class size was reduced, more teachers were needed.
California already had a teacher shortage; it became worse.
Another noxious side effect was that the mandated reduction of
classroom size opened up jobs in affluent neighborhood schools, and good
teachers gravitated to them. To fill the gap, emergency teaching
licenses were issued to 28,500 under-qualified teachers who were willing
to take the less desirable jobs in poor neighborhoods.
Advertisement - story continues below
Now, here comes the American Civil Liberties Union to file a
class-action lawsuit charging that California has violated the state
Constitution by forcing tens of thousands of mostly minority children to
attend substandard schools, thus denying them the right to a free and
equal public education.
The great irony of all of this is that the reduction of class size
bears little relationship to school performance. This is born out by
numerous studies, one of the best of which is an extensively documented
and referenced treatise entitled, "The Evidence on Class Size," authored
by Eric A. Hanushek, professor of economics and public policy at the
University of Rochester.
In an executive summary of his study, Professor Hanushek writes, "A
wave of enthusiasm for reducing class size is sweeping across the
country. This move appears misguided. Existing evidence indicates that
achievement for the typical student will be unaffected by instituting
... class size reductions. The most noticeable feature of policies to
reduce overall class sizes will be a dramatic increase in the costs of
schooling, an increase unaccompanied by achievement gains."
He continues with a blistering indictment of government schools: "The
largest impediment to any constructive change in schools is that nobody
in today's schools has much of an incentive to improve student
performance. Careers simply are not made on the basis of student
outcomes. The flow of resources is not related positively to performance
-- indeed, it is more likely to be perversely related to performance."
The good professor could have been describing Gov. Davis' approach to
educational reforms: more demagoguery and more money. It is a familiar
approach, perfected at the national level by the Clinton-Gore
administration. It is an approach that has little to do with reforming
schools, but has a lot to do with rewarding failure, protecting a
self-serving education monopoly from competition and accountability,
maintaining a child-cheating status quo, and duping the American people,
once again, into believing that genuine school reform is under way.