Want Better Teachers? Don’t Tax Them.

By closing loopholes for the ultrarich, America can exempt educators from the federal income tax.

America has a long and successful record of using the tax code to reward desirable social actions. Congress did this for VISTA and Peace Corps volunteers in the 1960s and it does so today for active-duty military personnel.

We urge Congress to now do the same for America’s 3.7 million K-12 teachers who are instructing the country’s 56.6 million school age children. A refundable tax credit program would help school boards employ and retain teachers. In particular, it would help recruit and retain the science, technology, and math teachers who today are such a high priority.

All informed citizens want high teaching standards and accountability. But they also understand that the economic plight of our K-12 teachers is a major obstacle when it comes to engaging with and developing top talent. This obstacle is especially difficult to overcome given the strain on municipal budgets and the low priority that aging communities place on school funding.

We believe that providing federal income tax relief to teachers would be a powerful response to this demand. It would also be an important step toward fully restoring the health of our national economy and sustaining our global competitiveness.

The best way to pay for this initiative is to ask our wealthiest citizens – whose children are often enrolled in private schools – to shoulder a relatively modest burden. As a first step, we propose closing the carried interest loophole and its related tax avoidance schemes once and for all. They are unacceptably unfair to lower and middle-class Americans. Even President Trump supported closing these exemptions when he was a candidate.

We estimate that the annual loss to the Treasury from just the carried interest deduction and its associated tax deferral schemes is about $15 billion a year. When all loopholes for the extremely wealthy are closed, and when the top rate is increased even modestly from its current level of 37 percent, then the total funds available for our proposal rises to at least $25 billion a year.

We do not believe in soaking the rich, but we do believe in asking them to do something that’s urgently needed and good. Think of it as a patriotic duty. The public interest would be well met by directing these dollars to America‘s accredited K-12 teachers, both the 3.3 million who teach in public schools as well as the 400,000 who teach in private schools. In other words, no teacher left behind.

Some might object to giving tax breaks to people who teach at private academies. But most private school teachers work for faith-based institutions, not the wealthy prep schools that affluent readers think about when they hear the words “private school.” In many cities, these faith-based schools are the only affordable alternative to poor public schools, and we don’t want to punish their instructors.

The $25-plus billion gained each year from restoring fairness to our tax system would more than cover the cost of waiving federal income taxes on those who choose to teach our children. In the aggregate, teachers pay roughly $23 billion in federal taxes per year. On average, that would save each teacher roughly $6,250 per year.

In enacting this program, it’s important that legislators incorporate a “non-substitution provision.” This would prevent local school boards from lowering salaries to offset the benefits going to teachers.

The U.S. Constitution gives the states the primary responsibility for the education of our children. Refundable tax credits of the sort we’ve identified would preserve the limited role of the federal government while restoring stability and longevity to teaching careers. And what a plus it would be to look out and see more and more qualified teachers for language instruction, math and science education, and disadvantaged students.

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Leo Hindery, Jr. and Bob Kerrey

Leo Hindery, Jr. is co-chair of the Task Force on Jobs Creation and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Formerly the CEO of AT&T Broadband and its predecessor, Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), he is currently an investor in media properties. Bob Kerrey, a former U.S. senator from Nebraska and earlier its governor, is a Managing Director of Allen & Company and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.