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Targeting teacher tax credit hurts students

A computer science teacher prepares her classroom for

A computer science teacher prepares her classroom for the upcoming school year. Credit: AP / Susan Haigh

Last week, I spent about $2 on a tube of ChapStick lip balm for one of my students who showed up to school with a mouth so dry and cracked that his bottom lip was bloody.

The week before that, I witnessed Halloween classroom celebrations at my elementary school -- where 98 percent of students come from low-income homes -- in which students ate cupcakes, candy (the good stuff, like Hershey’s bars, Skittles and Twix) and got such favors as pencils and stickers. All of this was provided by teachers, out of their own paychecks.

For many of our students, this was their only Halloween activity, as some live in neighborhoods where gang activity made trick-or-treating an impossibility. So, yes, the teachers brought in their own party supplies.

This was in addition to the list of provisions that teachers -- especially those who teach in poorly resourced, high-poverty districts -- routinely bring in for their students so that kids don’t miss out: books for classroom libraries, dry-erase markers for small-group work, bulletin board decorations, nameplates, crayons and colored pencils, snacks for the hungry, and, with the weather changing, extra coats, scarves and mittens for recess and walking home.

No one requires teachers to provide for their students. We do it because we care about offering the best possible educational experience under tremendously difficult circumstances.

This is another way of saying that we don’t do it for the tax break.

Even so, there are people in Washington who seem to feel that education is a worthy place to make cuts to shore up the country’s bloated budget. According to preliminary reports about the proposed Republican tax bill, the $250 educator-expense deduction, which K-12 teachers can claim for out-of-pocket spending on anything from supplies to professional development courses and computer equipment and software, is on the chopping block.

In my two-teacher household, this represents $500 -- but we’ve probably spent more than that already this school year on things like filing systems for classrooms, packing tape, board erasers and assorted flashcards, tissues, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer, math board games, progress monitoring software and even a sewing machine to prepare for a clothing class.

According to a 2016 survey by Scholastic Corp., the education publishing and media company, K-12 public-school teachers spent an average of $530 of their own money in the previous year for classroom or student use. And teachers in high-poverty schools spent nearly 40 percent more than their peers elsewhere.

I asked Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, what she thought of the GOP’s idea to end the educator-expense deduction. Her response was cutting: “Ripping away tax credit ... in order to fund tax breaks for the rich and corporations is not just hurting the middle class, it is heartless and disrespectful to educators and children alike. ... The combination of eliminating this credit and the state and local tax deduction shows President Trump and the GOP’s clear commitment to the rich and powerful at the expense of children, educators and families.”

And hey, let’s not forget that this is in addition to the late-summer plan floated by the Trump administration to end the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which helps teachers who take on these super challenging public service assignments. The GOP has also considered a grab-bag of other cuts that help train teachers and keep class sizes small.

But the truth is that even if these tax cuts go through, the short-term fall out will be minimal.

Teachers will continue to go above and beyond to ensure that the students in their care are as well taken care of as possible during the school day.

In the long term, however, the antagonism the federal government seems to have toward its teaching corps will wear. Teachers close to retirement will flee, while bright-eyed, idealistic new teachers will enter crumbling schools, spend their own money to help their students, and devote 18-hour days to the daunting task only to quickly burn out and leave the profession.

There will be more impassioned speeches, op-ed columns and news stories about how difficult it is to staff the neediest schools with the most high-performing educators.

And in the end, there will continue to be millions of public school teachers still forking over their own hard-earned money to provide their students a small measure of comfort in the face of a federal government that doesn’t value their efforts.


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