First Person

Congress: Don't Forget About Teachers in the Tax Bill

—Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.
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What members of Congress decide about one seemingly small provision in the tax bill that they hope to pass before the holidays will say a great deal about how we view our nation’s teachers.

Currently, the law allows a $250 deduction for teachers and principals who purchase school supplies for their students with their own money. But the House voted last month to eliminate that deduction for the millions of teachers who buy supplies, while the Senate earlier this month voted to up the deduction to $500.

If the two chambers agree, Congress could send a powerful message to our teachers: Teachers need more monetary support to purchase school supplies.

Even at $500, the deduction does not cover what the average teacher spends. Ninety-one percent of teachers purchase basic supplies—two-thirds of all classroom supplies, in fact—for students who can’t afford them. That rounds out to about $600 on average of each teacher’s own money every year, according to a survey in the 2015-16 school year of 1,800 public and private teachers by the Minneapolis-based nonprofit AdoptAClassroom.org (of which I am interim executive director). Purchases range from basics such as from pens, paper and notebooks to more costly items such as musical instruments, electronic notebooks, and robotics tools for science, technology, engineering, and math classes. These expenditures add up to more than $1.5 billion a year out of teachers’ pockets.

But the increase in support would be a start. More than 3 million teachers take advantage of the current deduction. But just as important as the monetary value of the deduction is the message it sends to our nation’s educators, most of whom are paid less than other professionals with similar education. In fact, a recent survey by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, which looked at data in 35 countries, found that U.S. teachers are paid less than 60 percent of the salaries of similarly educated professionals. And few, if any, other professionals are routinely expected to pay for their own supplies.

The deduction is a "small token of appreciation for teachers" who spend their own money for their students, Sen. Susan Collins told The New York Times. The Maine Republican wrote the law creating the deduction in 2002 and pushed for the expansion in the new Senate bill.

"It is our nation's children who will suffer the most."

You don't have to look far to find teachers who make monetary sacrifices for their students. David Barrett, who teachers engineering, robotics, and aviation to 180 middle school students at the NASA-affiliated Farnsworth Aerospace Middle School in St. Paul, Minn., told us that about 80 percent of his students come from low-income homes, and his classroom is one of the few places where they have access to technology. That’s partially because he spends up to $2,000 each year of his own money for the right tools and materials.

"We make a lot of assumptions that everyone has the newest iPhone, apps and technology, but inner-city folks, at least where I’m working, do not have these resources," Barrett said.

Katherine Haulter, a middle school English teacher in Jeffersonville, Ind., has a nonexistent classroom budget, so she spends $3,000 of her own money to stock her shelves each year.

She wants students "to get as far as they can and do as many wonderful things as they can so that when they get into high school they don’t feel like they’re limited," said Haulter. "They’ve had every opportunity that the kids in the private schools have had, and at this point it’s coming out of my own pocket."

And Danielle Winsko, who teaches dance at a public school for the arts in New York City, has spent as much as $3,500 in a single year purchasing basic school materials, dance attire, and cleaning supplies for the school's dance studio because the budget is not there for public schools to purchase those kinds of supplies.

There are thousands more stories like these around the country about teachers who do everything they can to help their students learn and contribute to the community. Without this accommodation, it is our nation's children who will suffer the most.

I urge the House and Senate conferees to acknowledge teachers' sacrifices and include the $500 deduction in the final tax bill. It's a very small piece of a $1.5 trillion bill that would help teachers financially and, more importantly show that the country cares about their dedication and service.

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