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Trinkets for New Teachers

California Gov. Gray Davis has taken a national bidding war to attract and retain teachers to a new level. He proposes letting public school teachers pay no state income tax. That might give a $1,350 bonus to a teacher earning $50,000.

Governors all around the country are experimenting with incentives - such as signing bonuses - to bolster the ranks of teachers. Baby-boomer teachers are about to retire, a booming economy offers more-lucrative alternatives to teaching, and, meanwhile, student populations are growing.

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Most of these sweeteners, however, have their sour side. Mr. Davis's plan met with cheers from the teachers' union, a key constituency. It received a you're-kidding response from other quarters. Critics predict that police, firefighters, and others will seek the same treatment. Indeed, officials of some unions representing those professions applaud the teacher tax break, saying it opens the door for their members to get the same.

Where does that end? The teachers income-tax exemption would cost the state an estimated $545 million a year. California, like many other states, has a budget surplus. But is this the best way to spend it?

Yet you have to credit Davis for creative thinking. And he's not alone. Schools in Georgia are holding job fairs for prospective teachers, with on-the-spot contract signings and bonuses. Other states, including New York and Ohio, are covering tuition costs for people earning a teaching credential if they agree to work in districts where the need is greatest. South Dakota is offering to pay off student loans if a prospect agrees to stay on the job for a given number of years.

These come-ons may be enough to keep some waverers on track toward the classroom. But they don't address some underlying problems, including cumbersome credentialing requirements in many states and all-too-often union opposition to change.

But one problem tops them all: low base salaries for teachers. To get at that, you have to rethink the way schools are funded - still largely through local property taxes, though state revenues are a growing factor.

Property taxes are a relatively inflexible (and politically sensitive) source of funds. And in California, of course, they've long been capped. States must be more creative with the structure of school finance, instead of focusing on incentive gimmickry.

And average citizens will have to face a key question: How much more are they willing to pay, through whatever means, to boost teachers' salaries?

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(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society