Ballot Box

Policy Corner: Two Lousy Education Ideas

Gore’s signing bonuses: Al Gore proposes to meet the rising demand for new teachers by creating what he calls a “21st Century National Teachers Corps.” Of the 75,000 talented people he hopes to attract to teaching each year, he thinks 60,000 should be new college graduates and 15,000 should be “mid-career professionals” who want to change jobs. Gore wants to attract bright and talented people in both categories by giving them hefty signing bonuses. In last Friday’s Nightline debate, he indicated that he would set the bounty at $10,000 a head.

What a poor use of $750 million a year that would be. There are tens of thousands of capable college graduates as well as mid-career professionals who would love nothing more than to become public-school teachers either for a few years or longer. But they can’t become public-school teachers. What prevents them isn’t the insufficient pay, the low social status, or the emotionally taxing work. It’s the teachers’ unions, which maintain powerful barriers to entry in the form of certification requirements. This means that if you’re a smart young college graduate or a bored lawyer or a retired-at-42 Army colonel who wants to teach in a public school, you can’t do so without obtaining credits in education. And because education courses are a colossal waste of time, many people who would make wonderful teachers never get the opportunity.

The idea of a Peace Corps-type program fueled by big signing bonuses seems odd in any case. If Gore really wants to attract more talented people to careers in teaching, he needs to do two things he’s not doing. He needs to appeal to the idealism of those he wants to recruit by telling them that they can make more money elsewhere but that they can do more for society by becoming teachers. And he needs to prevent his allies in the teachers’ unions from continuing to serve as gatekeepers to the profession.

McCain’s tax breaks: McCain always gets a chuckle for his line that a good teacher shouldn’t be paid less than a bad senator. But his plan for rewarding good teachers is wackier than Gore’s and much more foolish. According to an AP story, McCain plans to spend $1 billion on income-tax cuts for the nation’s best teachers. A teacher rated “excellent” might get a 25 percent income tax credit. McCain apparently thinks this will produce a helpful kind of competition in the public schools.

Merit pay, like alternate certification, is a sound idea that has been blocked by the teachers’ unions, which instead want more pay for everybody. But McCain has come up with an ass-backward method of inflicting merit pay–an idea that’s awful for so many reasons one almost doesn’t know where to begin criticizing it. The biggest problem is that once you start trying to shape people’s career choices through the tax code–awarding tax-favored status to some professions and not others–you’re on an express train to hell. Why teachers but not social workers? Why social workers but not nurses? Why nurses and not police? And indeed, why teachers at public schools and not teachers at private and parochial schools–where McCain wants students to be able to go with the help of federally funded vouchers. With this idea, McCain, who casts himself as the arch-foe of the special interests in Washington, has devised an entirely new form of favoritism for special interests to pursue.