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How a $250 break for teachers explains House-Senate divide on taxes

How a $250 break for teachers explains House-Senate divide on taxes

Deduction does not yield large return for its recipients
How a $250 break for teachers explains House-Senate divide on taxes
Photographer: Shutterstock

WASHINGTON — For Carrie Uffelman Brake, planning for next school year begins before the current one ends.

The shopping starts as early as April, when she gets the list of students who will be in her third-grade classroom in rural Tennessee the following fall. If boys outnumber girls, she will need extra toys to keep hyperactive hands busy. If it is a group of struggling readers, she will need double the number of books.

Bargain-hunting season comes in early summer, when nobody is shopping for school supplies. That gives way to the blowout sales in late summer, when everybody is. Then there’s tax time, and a $250 tax deduction to offset some of that out-of-pocket spending.

For 15 years, the nation’s tax code has recognized teachers like Uffelman Brake with a small perk that has now come to illustrate a larger philosophical divide as Congress tries to push through a sweeping tax overhaul.

The House tax bill, approved this month along party lines, would eliminate the teacher spending deduction in its effort to clean up the tax code, close loopholes and secure bigger tax cuts for all.

The Senate bill, which could come up for a vote in the coming days, would double it, to $500.

“The deduction is a small token of appreciation for teachers who make financial sacrifices to benefit their students,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who wrote the law that created the educator tax credit in 2002 and now wants to expand it.

The deduction — which reduces taxable income, rather than providing a dollar-for-dollar credit in a tax bill — does not yield a large return for its recipients. The most a teacher could recoup is $100, and most see a return of about $40, a small fraction of the roughly $600 that teachers are estimated to spend a year.

But for the more than 3 million teachers who claim the deduction, it’s still money.

“For me — as a young mother — that’s formula, a doctor’s appointment copay,” Uffelman Brake said. “It was like a little thank-you card from lawmakers that they’re just taking away.”

That thank-you card allows principals, teachers, counselors and school aides to take a small deduction of business-related expenses that is more often used by entrepreneurs with home offices. Collins said that she had visited more than 200 schools in Maine and had encountered teachers at virtually every one who had paid out of pocket for school supplies.

For Democrats and educators, the House’s decision to end the small provision presents a large political opportunity to accuse Republicans of favoring corporations and the rich over the middle class.

The House bill “shows President (Donald) Trump and the GOP’s clear commitment to the rich and powerful at the expense of children, educators and families,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Republican lawmakers argue that such claims are disingenuous.

In the House debate on the tax bill, Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., said that teachers in her state, based on the average salary, save $37.50 from the educator deduction but would save more than $1,000 from the other benefits of the House bill.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a South Florida Republican whose wife teaches algebra, called the deduction an example of the “complicated, small, sometimes invisible benefits” that the tax overhaul seeks to phase out.

“Do we want a tax code that has the special and small benefits for many small groups of Americans, or do we want a tax code that broadly benefits all Americans and that treats all Americans fairly?” Curbelo said.

But many teachers are skeptical, especially since the tax bills maintain or expand all sorts of tax benefits for more powerful constituents, from eliminating the tax on inherited fortunes to maintaining the “carried interest” loophole, which taxes the fees of private-equity fund managers at low capital gains rates instead of at higher income tax rates.

“It’s not fair, and we don’t say it often, because it comes with the job,” said Shakera Oliver, a middle school math and science teacher in Washington. “But if businesses get a tax deduction, I don’t see why we can’t.”

Oliver said she spent $700 last year buying materials so that students could have hands-on experiences — like a cooking lesson to help teach fractions. But she spends a lot of the money to equal the playing field in the classroom.

By the second week of school, Oliver said, she begins to discreetly hand out notebooks and folders so that students who cannot afford them avoid embarrassment.

“The hidden story is that this deduction represents the sacrifice that we make as educators because we understand that we have to build the social-emotional development of the child,” Oliver said.

An analysis of educators’ personal spending released by Scholastic this year reflects the reality that teachers and principals are mostly spending their own money to meet the social and emotional needs of students.

Principals in the study spent an average of $683 of their own money, primarily on snacks and other food for students, classroom and school decorations, and classroom supplies like binders and paper.

A high percentage of principals also reported spending their own money on clothes and health supplies, like tissues and hand sanitizer. Principals in high-poverty schools spent more than double the amount that principals of low-poverty schools spent. Teachers in the survey spent an average of $530 of their own money in the same categories, with teachers in high-poverty schools spending nearly 40 percent more.

Increasingly, teachers have started to seek donations through DonorsChoose and GoFundMe pages. Courtney Hawkes, a middle school art teacher in North Carolina, started reaching out to companies to donate art supplies earlier this year. She teaches in a “turnaround school” — one of the worst performing in the state.

“It’s a knock to your pride to have to go and ask for handouts, and my fear is that this will become the expectation,” Hawkes said. “My kids are told if they go to a bad school, they’re not going to be anything, and I want them to have the best of everything.”

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