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Tax break studied for Minn. teachers who get degrees in fields they teach

Minnesota Rep. Dean Urdahl of Grove City tells a House committee Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, that more teachers would get master's degrees in the fields they study if they received a tax break. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 2
Minnesota state Rep. Julie Sandstede of Hibbing wonders on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, if a bill providing tax breaks to teachers who get advanced degrees in the fields they teach would help speciality teachers. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 2

ST. PAUL—Most Minnesota teachers do not get master's degrees in the subjects they teach.

That, state Rep. Dean Urdahl says, needs to change so students get better education.

If teachers know more about the subjects they teach, students would learn more, he said Tuesday, Feb. 14.

The Minnesota House Education Finance Committee Tuesday approved Urdahl's legislation to provide tax credits of $2,500 to teachers who earn master's degrees in their fields. It is expected to become part of an overall tax bill lawmakers consider later this spring.

The tax credit equals about a quarter of the cost of getting a master's degree, Urdahl said.

About half of teachers get master's degrees, but more than nine out of 10 of them do not get them in the areas they teach.

Urdahl said that many teachers want to become administrators and go for advanced degrees that would help them land those jobs. Under his bill, teachers could get degrees in whatever fields they want, but only would qualify for tax breaks if the degree is in their field.

In six years of pushing the concept, Urdahl has received no strong objection. Last year, for instance, it was in a tax bill lawmakers overwhelmingly passed, but Gov. Mark Dayton did not sign it because it contained a costly error in another provision.

Urdahl, a Grove City Republican and former teacher for 35 years, emphasises in his bill core academic subjects such as English, reading, math, science, foreign languages, civics, economics, history and geography.

Rep. Julie Sandstede, D-Hibbing, said she supports the Urdahl idea, but wants to make sure it can help teachers of other subjects, too.

"Any time we can help teachers become better instructors, the students can benefit from that," said Sandstede, herself a teacher.

Urdahl said he is open to allowing a broader range of teachers to qualify for the tax break.

Another issue the Urdahl bill is supposed to address is a 2022 deadline for Minnesota to meet guidelines for teachers who teach college classes in high schools. The Center on Education Progress, an education watchdog group, says that by then teachers should have advanced degrees in the subjects they teach.

Many schools offer classes that provide both high school and college credits if teachers are accredited by colleges.

The state Revenue Department reports a tax credit may increase the number of teachers with degrees in the fields they teach by 1 percent per year.

While Urdahl said that is not a dramatic increase, it could help. "It is a modest bill."

If a school pays for a teacher getting a master's degree, the tax credit would not be available.

"Some districts are able to pay for this, others aren't," said Roger Aronson, representing state elementary and secondary school principals.

He said principals support the tax breaks.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.