Thomas Friedman proposes that public school teachers pay no income tax

Desperate financial times call for desperate measures and certainly I’ve put forth some crazy ideas here in my Weblog, but people expect a touch of insanity from a private blog.  On January 11, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Thomas Friedman in which he

1) discloses that his wife is a public school teacher (union member)


2) proposes that the government eliminate federal income tax on all schoolteachers

He says that “more talented people would choose these careers” if they didn’t have to pay any tax.

Were we to implement the tax break immediately, 100% of the benefits would flow to existing teachers because no new ones will be hired until September.  Friedman implies that these existing teachers are untalented because they are paid so little (topping out at just over $100,000 per year after 22 years, or age 44 for the typical person who starts after college) I don’t think he believes that the untalented will do a better job without the distraction of paying federal income tax, so perhaps he is holding out hope for five years from now.  In September 2009, a truly talented young person, hearing about this tax break, will decide to go to a teacher’s college to pursue a Bachelor’s in Education.  In September 2013 that person will have graduated and be ready to work.  Assuming an average career length of 30 years, by 2014 fully 3 percent of our schoolteachers will be the talented ones attracted by the tax break and taxpayers will only be wasting 97 percent of their money by paying the untalented legacy schoolteachers extra.

I’m kind of surprised that the Times ran this piece.

[Note that Friedman’s idea is not totally at odds with my economic recovery plan, in which I propose eliminating public employee unions and teacher tenure.]


  1. oogle

    January 13, 2009 @ 2:42 am


    Hi Phil,

    In you economic recovery plan you note that farm subsidies raise the prices of food. But as far as I know, if you subsidize and increase production of some crops, there will be decrease in price. From what I understand, that is the reason why corn and other crops (like cotton) is so cheap. If US and other countries removed subsidy on these crops, their price would go up and food prices would rise, hurting poor people. Of course, the total cost of subsidy will probably be higher than savings from lower price of food, but the price will be higher without the subsidies.

  2. Bob T

    January 13, 2009 @ 7:51 am


    It’s so sad that the myth of teachers being so underpaid lives on.

    I don’t know about other states, but here in california, most teachers work a 186 day year, 6 hours per day. I submit that the argument “they work extra hours” is offset by regular employees that make the same kind of money, working additional hours.

    For the rest of us, if you take out the weekends and a two week vacation, working 8 hours per day, you end up with 1,976 hours.

    For a teacher, 186 days times 6 hours per day equals 1,116 hours.

    Thus while teachers are paid a competitive salary, all things considered, they work only 56% of the hours compared to the rest of us.

    Equalized for hours worked, a teacher making 60k per year is being paid at the rate of $107k per year.

    There might be a problem in education, but it isn’t what teachers are paid.

  3. Aaron D. Ball

    January 13, 2009 @ 9:00 am


    Phil, I’m surprised: you seem to be taking for granted that a Bachelor’s in Education is an important part of becoming a teacher. Suppose instead for a moment that it is at least as good to have a degree in the subject being taught.

    One can pick up a provisional MA teaching certificate (on which you can teach for five years before you much get a Master’s degree) with one day of exams that, if you’re competent at your subject area and at reading and writing, are not particularly challenging. I did that this year, when I was in a technical job that was bad enough to make me reconsider my career path; but I found a more satisfying technical job, so I didn’t end up switching.

    A factor in this decision was the fact that it would take a PhD and ten years as a teacher in order to get to a salary close to, but still less than, what I made last year; and that getting that PhD in my field rather than in a night-school field like “educational administration” would be difficult or impossible, since graduate math classes meet during the same hours as high school classes.

    (Some people say that a low salary selects for people who are more dedicated. That may be true, but then again several of my technical co-workers are volunteering at our local schools on top of our other jobs…)

  4. philg

    January 13, 2009 @ 12:35 pm


    Oogle: Good point about the federal farm regulation. Some of the regulations and money flows raise prices to consumers while others cut prices. Quotas on sugar cane keep sugar prices ridiculously high in the U.S. When farmers are paid not to grow crops, that obviously raises prices by limiting demands. For some other products, money paid to farmers for actually growing crops presumably reduces prices to consumers.

    Aaron: Whether it is good or bad to have a Bachelor’s in Education, that is the most common degree for someone who chooses to become a schoolteacher. At the same time that we’re giving all of the teachers a tax holiday, I don’t think it is reasonable also to expect to completely change the career trajectory. talks about how people end up becoming teachers.

  5. Anthony

    January 13, 2009 @ 1:18 pm


    In Taiwan school teachers don’t pay income tax I believe…

  6. Brad Templeton

    January 13, 2009 @ 4:59 pm


    While we think of income tax as being a tax on the employee, it’s really a tax on the employer just as much, if not more.

    While I don’t agree that you can’t improve something (slowly) by showing that it is going to be a more rewarding career, the other question is whether this would be true.

    Since it seems that school boards, no longer having to pay income tax on their employees, will be able to lower salaries (or simply no longer raise them) and attract as good or better people. So this is just a windfall for school boards (and presumably private schools.) Plus, everything that can will get itself declared educational, and every customer service agent will be a teacher.

    If spending more money on teachers will improve education, the way to do it is to spend more money on teachers. But can this sort of federal subsidy do it?

  7. Mark in Boston

    January 14, 2009 @ 12:07 am


    It makes no sense to choose a career based on this year’s tax break. You don’t know whether the tax break will still be in place even four years from now.

  8. GB

    January 14, 2009 @ 9:37 am


    There is a study out there about teacher quality in other countries, seems places with higher quality teachers front load the salary schedule. That attracts talent, perhaps the talent won’t stick around for 40 years waiting for the bigger bucks but apparently talent can be found to replace any talent that moves on. I agree with not charging school teachers/public employees income tax but there salaries have to be lowered commensurate with the tax they are no longer paying. Withholding tax from public employees allows them to believe they are actually contributing something, remove that and it will be more obvious who they work for. Along the same lines as ending withholding for everyone else so we all save to pay our taxes, it would be a PIA but might just lead to a large enough realization of how much the looters take to effect change.

  9. Mario

    January 14, 2009 @ 1:59 pm


    I think it’s a great idea. Let’s make teachers a separate class of citizens, a class that doesn’t pay the taxes the rest of us pay. Perhaps there are other privileges of nobility we could bestow on them as well. Once we elevate teachers, we can do the same to police and other public servants. Why not? It should be only the commoners that pay taxes anyway, n’est-ce pas?

  10. Jim Howard

    January 14, 2009 @ 3:08 pm


    I really think we are in a very dangerous state with respect to taxation right now.

    Presently only about half of voters actually pay any income tax at all, many getting all their withholding back plus a large EITC ‘refund’.

    PE Obama hasn’t released details of his tax plans, but indications are that the pool of non-taxpaying voters will be expanded. Now throw in a few million well paid tax free public school teachers and we have a majority of voters paying no income tax at all.

    To me it seems self-evidently dangerous if the majority of voters can vote themselves new and expanded entitlements without bearing any apparent cost. This state of affairs will probably create a negative feedback loop that will in short order substantially reduce the standard of living for everyone in the country.

  11. gheron

    January 15, 2009 @ 11:33 pm


    This seems very unlikely to work to me. I feel sure there are many more important issues than pay levels that are undermining the performance of current teachers and the recruitment of talented people into the profession.
    However, the question of how to attract and retain better teachers remains.

    My own personal experience has been that a good teacher can have a significant impact on a persons life, but that good teaches are few and far between. Few seem to be able to maintain their initial enthusiasm over a long term career. You will always have a core of excellent teachers who are committed long term and improve over time, but perhaps it would help if it was made an attractive option to become a teacher for a shorter time period. This group of short termers could work along side the long term core and be mentored by them. Personally I wouldn’t want a career in teaching, but would be interested in doing it for a few years.

  12. Brian

    January 16, 2009 @ 11:14 am


    I’ve known many school teachers over the years and pay isn’t what they complain about. They complain about the bureaucracy and red tape the administration puts on them that prevents them from doing an outstanding job. It’s no different than any other large business. You can’t scale talent so you put up procedures and guidelines that everyone must follow. Meritocracy is the best you can hope for under those conditions. The truly talented people go where they can use their creativity.

    I’ve seen too many surveys that show that pay isn’t the number one factor in retaining talented people.

  13. Daniel Patru

    January 16, 2009 @ 2:45 pm


    Allowing teachers not to pay income taxes is a good idea precisely because it would create a separate, privileged class of people who are free from the income tax. Once this class is created, it will grow as politicians find need to bestow special favor. Furthermore, teachers have a disproportionate influence over the most impressionable (future) voters. Although it may take some time, hopefully there will come a time when Americans will wonder why their ancestors consented to government confiscation of their income.

  14. CHenry

    January 17, 2009 @ 6:42 pm


    The tax plan rewards the highest-paid members of the NEA more than anyone else. It really is not a plan that will encourage excellent graduates to choose teaching. It’s crap.

    A better plan is to do what the military does to gain wartime-critical medical specialists: pay off their loans while they train as residents in exchenge for a fixed term of reserve service proportionate to the term of financial support. A program to buy a set percentage of a graduate’s educational debt (and possibly even pay into a fund for additional education, if you need a kicker) every year a graduate works as a public school teacher. The program should be selective, accepting only those who have scored at or above the 75th percentile on the GRE in the field they teach. The program should only be open to new graduates and paid in arrears to prevent reneging.

    It should not be a boondoggle for those entrenched in the system; it should be a program to attract new, high-quality candidates.

  15. tekumse

    January 20, 2009 @ 7:51 pm


    Why does anybody care about what Thomas Friedman writes? To quote reddit he is “a fake everything”. He should be most famous for his Friedman unit

    “This is Friedman’s life: He flies around the world, eats pricey lunches with other rich people and draws conclusions about the future of humanity by looking out his hotel window and counting the Applebee’s signs. ”

    Also check out the comic that comes with the above article:

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