It’s an annual ritual, like first-day jitters or leading children in a Halloween parade — come spring, teachers pull crinkled receipts out of a file folder labeled “taxes” and claim a meager $250 tax deduction for supplies they purchase for their students.
Teachers, charged with developing our nation’s future leaders, spend almost $500 of their own money each year on supplies for their students’ learning, according to a study by the National School Supply and Equipment Association. Now, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have proposed a tax plan that would eliminate the specific tax deduction teachers can claim for buying school supplies, in the name of lowering taxes for corporations and the super-rich. The Treasury Department says that the $250 educators may deduct from their earnings reduced overall tax revenue by $210 million in 2016, a sum that pales in comparison to proposed tax cuts for the wealthy. Repealing the estate tax alone will cost the government $17.2 billion each year for the next decade.
Politics is full of bipartisan hopes that America’s teachers can restore the illusory American Dream, one marking period at a time. Teachers, we’re told, can help children realize their God-given potential. Teachers can prepare our children’s hearts and minds to lead. Our political leaders apparently trust us so much to carry out these tall tasks that they expect we can accomplish them in understaffed schools, with crowded classrooms, minimal support staff like nurses and counselors and vastly unequal budgets. This outsized trust would be flattering if it weren’t so insane. Teachers are leaving the profession in droves, put off by high stress and comparatively low compensation. Teachers make about $56,000 a year on average, according to data that’s a few years old. Their salaries are nearly 20 percent less than that of other college graduates. In extreme cases, teachers have resorted to panhandling to cover classroom basics — and rather than help us meet the demands of the job, elected officials now don’t even want to let teachers deduct what we spend on our students.
When I taught in a public school serving mixed-income students in Bridgeport, Conn., I had an annual classroom budget of $250, and I spent hundreds of additional dollars out of pocket. The classroom budget could cover some of the basics for my pre-kindergarteners — construction paper, tempera paint, glue sticks. The PTA chipped in another $50 per classroom, which covered crayons and markers. Parents paid for tissues and bought us books from the book fair. Everything else, I purchased: soft pillows to make a cozy book nook, small lamps to drive out the darkness at nap time, even flushable wipes. The years I taught prekindergarten as opposed to kindergarten, I was not even eligible for the tax break that might have returned about $40 to me. My school encouraged us to use sites like Donors Choose, a crowdfunding site for classroom supplies — it was rumored that our principal’s mother sometimes logged in. I couldn’t walk through my neighborhood without stopping to inspect discarded items on the sidewalk that I might be able to repurpose for my students. A pile of shoes could be great for dress-up, a colander for sand play. There’s a whole genre of articles devoted to helping teachers create welcoming spaces on a shoestring budget. One memorable piece suggested teachers scavenge electrical spools from construction sites and upholster them to make comfy “toadstools.” What teachers save in dollars, they spend in another precious commodity: time.
What I’ve come to realize is that a larger classroom budget makes a difference in terms of instruction — in general, more money gets results, despite popular belief to the contrary. Now I teach in a private school, where tuition rivals that of a four-year college. My class is smaller and my budget for supplies more than 10 times larger than before. In my fifth year there, I can say without hesitation that the difference in classroom budget means more than just a difference in the quality of tempera paint (from runny and unable to sustain a rainbow to bright and viscous). It makes creative, hands-on learning possible: To teach about bread around the world, I bought a hand-mill and various grains. To teach about rocks and minerals, I got geodes for the children to crack open. I am reimbursed for every penny, and I spend no money out of pocket anymore. I am a more present, thoughtful and effective teacher, partly because of my larger classroom budget. When teachers have to push themselves to their limits to afford the basics, no one benefits.
Recently, I attended a fundraiser for D.C. area teachers, organized by a homegrown group called D.C. Soup. Each of the couple dozen attendees, mostly teachers, contributed a pot of soup or loaf of bread and $10 cash. Two teacher contestants wore sashes and pitched the crowd on why they should get the money. One sought funding to teach a kindergarten juggling elective; he needed funds for scarves, balls and honorariums for expert visitors. A middle school teacher wanted to help her students with profound autism design a photo exhibit; she needed seven disposable cameras, color printing at Kinko’s and photo albums. Some students and their parents showed up. The evening was wholesome and convivial, but I left feeling quite sad to see colleagues reduced to competing, pageant style, for funds that should be readily available to every classroom teacher in America.
I’d love to see this tax deduction go if the money saved by eliminating it went to a progressive, common-sense plan that lifts up the working class and the nation’s most vulnerable students. Or if the money was all sent back to school districts to pay for classroom supplies directly. But this GOP tax plan takes that money from teachers’ pockets and gives it to the wealthy individuals and corporations that need it least.
The elimination of the $250 tax deduction may be small potatoes when it comes to the formidable challenges that confront public school teachers. But the deduction does make a difference. And to the extent that our nation’s tax policy expresses our view of what is socially valuable, the message of this proposed plan is clear: We will threaten the tax base that funds public education, and we’ll take away that shiny apple on your desk, too. No need to keep those receipts anymore — teachers and kids, you’re on your own.