Republicans backed away from some of the most controversial education proposals in their finalized tax bill Friday, leaving in place a school supply deduction for teachers and breaks for student borrowers while also declining to tax tuition benefits, a prospect that had infuriated graduate students.
“On balance, the final bill is far better news — especially for students and families — than it could have been,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, which represents colleges and universities.
But public school advocates assailed the plan, which includes provisions that could hurt public school funding while providing tax breaks for parents who send their children to private schools.
Five groups that represent public school superintendents, school business officials and rural schools authored a letter opposing the tax overhaul, saying it “includes provisions that undermine the strength of our nation’s public school systems and compromises the ability of these systems to adequately and effectively provide educational opportunities and services to the students they serve.”
Here’s a round up of some of the ways the tax bill could affect parents, educators and students.
It’s good for parents of private school children and a win for school choice.
Under current law, tax-free 529 college savings accounts can be used only to pay for college. But the Republican proposal allows parents to use that money — up to $10,000 a year per child — to pay for private K-12 school tuition and home-schooling. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has applauded the provision, calling it “a good step forward, reflecting that education should be an investment in individual students, not systems.”
Other advocates of school choice have pointed out that it largely benefits wealthier families who can afford to save for private schools. And public school advocates say it gives parents incentives to leave public schools, and that harms districts that rely on education funding based on how many pupils enroll.
It’s good for teachers who reach into their pockets to pay for school supplies.
Teachers spend about $500 of their own money on school and classroom supplies, according to one survey. In 2002, Congress gave educators who shelled out for pencils, art supplies, paper and other school supplies a $250 tax break. The House bill sought to eliminate that, leading to an outcry from cash-strapped teachers. The Senate bill aimed to double the deduction to $500. The final plan leaves the deduction at $250.
It may be bad for public school funding at all levels.
The proposal curtails the ability of taxpayers to deduct state and local taxes from their federal tax bill, limiting the deduction to $10,000. By increasing the federal tax burden on individuals, advocates worry that states, counties and school boards will have a tougher time raising money for schools, which get most of their resources from state and local tax revenues.
Public colleges and universities could also see a ripple effect. Though people will be able to deduct up to $10,000 in state and local taxes, that might not be enough to relieve pressure on states to cut their own taxes to compensate. And that could reduce revenue for public colleges and universities, which down the road could raise tuition to offset the loss of funding.
Additionally, the legislation bans school districts from using one kind of tax-free method to refinance their school bond debt, a move that has helped districts save millions of dollars, according to John Musso, executive director of the Association of School Business Officials International.
It could be good for tax credit scholarships that fund private school education.
Several states have tax credit scholarship programs that offer generous tax breaks — sometimes dollar-for-dollar tax credits — for donating to special state-administered scholarship programs that help families pay for private schools. With the curtailing of the state and local tax deduction, some are predicting wealthier people will pour more money into tax credit scholarship funds to reduce their state tax burden.
It’s good for graduate students and university employees.
Republicans backed away from House proposals to tax the value of college tuition benefits that universities provide graduate students and campus employees.
Thousands of graduate students staged walkouts across the country and called members of Congress to ensure that the tuition waivers they receive for working as teachers and research assistants were not counted as income. Their efforts were bolstered by the Senate’s decision to exclude the proposed repeal in its tax plan. A group of 31 House Republicans also asked party leaders to abandon the provision, arguing it would place an unfair burden on students.
Graduate students were also spared the loss of the Lifetime Learning Credit, a tax credit for up to $2,000 spent on tuition, books and supplies. People pursuing advanced degrees rely on the credit because there is no limit on the number of years it can be claimed, unlike the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which is good for only the first four years of college. House Republicans had proposed consolidating the tax credits into one that would be available only for five years, effectively limiting its usefulness to graduate students.
Campus employees scored a win in the final bill, which excluded a House provision to tax the tuition benefits they receive.
Janitors, secretaries and other employees at most colleges are afforded discounted or free tuition for themselves, their children and spouses. More than one–third of employees who take advantage of this benefit earn less than $50,000 a year, according to a survey from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.
It’s good for anyone paying for college.
People whose employers cover a portion of their college costs no longer have to worry about the money becoming taxable income, because the final bill excludes a House proposal that would have taxed that benefit.
It’s a mixed bag for colleges.
Let’s start with the good news. The final legislation axes a House provision that would have gotten rid of interest-free bonds that many private colleges use to fund construction on campus. It also holds the line on increasing the taxes colleges pay on unrelated business income, such as the money a school earns selling coffee mugs at the campus bookstore.
The not-so good news: Colleges can no longer use a loss in one business venture to offset a gain in another as a strategy to lower their taxes. Republicans adopted a Senate proposal requiring tax-exempt organizations, such as universities, to calculate losses and gains for each activity — a move that schools have said will raise their tax burden. The bill delivered Friday also gets rid of another form of bond financing that universities rely on to refinance debt at lower interest rates, known as advanced refunding bonds.
What’s more, it includes a controversial 1.4 percent excise tax on the net investment income on endowments at a handful of private colleges and universities. The tax will be applicable to schools with endowments worth at least $500,000 per full-time student, the threshold set in the Senate tax plan. About 30 colleges will be affected by the endowment tax, according to the American Council on Education. Opponents of the tax have argued it sets a dangerous precedent for all of higher education.
All colleges and universities could see a drop in charitable giving because of the GOP plan. Raising the standard deduction will result in fewer people itemizing their taxes, which is the only way you can deduct charitable contributions. That deduction has been a powerful fund-raising tool for colleges and universities of all sizes.
It’s good for student loan borrowers.
Taking a page from the Senate tax plan, the final bill will leave in place the student loan interest deduction. The benefit lets people repaying student loans reduce their tax burden by as much as $2,500. Because borrowers can claim the deduction even if they choose not to itemize, the tax benefit is available to anyone paying interest on education debt. But only single people earning less than $80,000 and married couples earning less than $160,000 can take advantage of the deduction.
Still, more than 12 million benefited from the deduction in 2015, according to the Internal Revenue Service. That’s just about 3 in 10 of the 44 million Americans with student loans. The higher the interest payments, the greater the deduction, which is why the benefit is especially valuable to people with large loan amounts.
The final bill also puts an end to the government counting as taxable income student debt that is forgiven because of death or disability. Anyone with a severe disability is eligible to have the government discharge their federal student loans. Every dollar forgiven by the government, however, is considered taxable income. Not anymore if this bill passes.
Clarification: An earlier version of the story said the student loan interest deduction lets people repaying student loans reduce their tax burden by as much as $2,500. The benefit actually allows people to reduce their taxable income by as much as $2,500.