Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I've Got An Idea!

So, I'm on the treadmill, cooling down after a run, thinking random thoughts, when it hits me. Let's fix education in America!! Everyone agrees that our educational system is failing a high percentage of students, right? I read a statistic recently (if I remember correctly, it's from the mayor of Portland, Sam Adams', office) that about 40% of the kids in Portland Public Schools will not graduate high school. I've also read that the rate is even higher in other large cities. Seriously, is that even possible? That is just plain scary. This hits home pretty hard with me. I have two nephews who fell through the cracks and dropped out at the end of their sophomore years, and they are both suffering the consequences of the extremely limited options this lack of education leaves them.

I know a lot of factors influence the effectiveness of a child's education, from home life to culture, to teachers and unions, and many of these factors are not things that government can control. However, some of them are things over which government could have more effective influence than it does. Take teachers, for example. (No, I am not saying that government can control teachers.) There are good ones and there are bad ones. Some are engaged, talented and energetic, and some are putting in their time, tired, and counting the days until retirement. (By the way, I don't think that has anything to do with age. I've had great older teachers and lousy young ones. Some teachers are just better than others.) Is it possible for these gifted teachers to be encouraged to stay, while the less effective are encouraged to find employment that is better suited to their abilities? What, if anything, can or should the federal government do to foster that end? Would the teachers union even brook the slightest interference to their hold on power and seniority? No chance, you say? What if internal pressure gave them no choice?

Here's my proposal: Congress passes a law that says that the households of teachers and teaching assistants will pay no income taxes. None--not even at the state level. I'm not talking just the teachers themselves, but anyone who brings home a paycheck in that household (dependants up to a certain age, say 21). Many teachers salaries are low enough that they probably don't pay federal income tax anyway, but you throw in the income from hubby or wife, and you are talking some significant tax savings. Add on the kids' summer job and they've got a tax free college savings plan!! How's that for incentive for the best and brightest to go into education, and their spouses to be supportive of the endeavor?

Here's the condition: Retention of position is completely dependant upon classroom outcomes. If the kids learn to read, write, do math, etc., then that teacher is kept on the payroll, and off the tax rolls. If they do not, then some of the eager talents waiting in the wings get their shot at improving the situation. How many of the teachers currently in the union would not clamber to have this law enacted? Probably just the bad ones who are currently only protected by seniority from getting the boot. The rest of them would find the reward to be high. This isn't a way to break the union (if the union works for the benefit of its members), but a way to benefit both teachers and students so that everyone comes out ahead. Win, win. The union stays intact, but with purer motives, and the future of American education is dramatically improved.

The cost to the federal coffers would be minimal, but the gain to society could be enormous. We'd have a better educated populace, a well-rewarded class of teachers, and future income for the government based on the fact that an educated country is a productive, creative and revenue-generating country. Imagine the day when teaching would become a coveted position in society, only the gifted could get into teaching programs, and only the best teachers fill our public schools. Imagine.

So what do you think? Pipe dream? Too full of impracticalities? Too naive? (Already been thought and tried? It's new to me, but that doesn't mean much.) I like it, but then I was pretty tired when I thought it up. Maybe it was the endorphins talking... Hey, if this works we could do it with police and firefighters, doctors, nurses; the list goes on. Who would be left to pay taxes you ask? How about all the rest of that well-educated populace that chooses not to go into service sector employment? Better yet, how about only the politicians pay taxes? That would ensure that people had a disincentive to commit politics and we might end up with some purer motives there, as well.