Politics & Government

Teachers who buy classroom supplies with their own money cry foul on Republican tax plan

Teachers often have to spend their own money to provide students with books, pens and pencils, and can get a tax deduction of $250 for their expenses — but there’s no such break in the Republican tax legislation.

Both House and Senate tax bills would end the break, and powerful teachers' unions are mobilizing to fight the proposal.

"It's a slap in the face to teachers to take it away. For teachers, it’s like ‘Are you kidding me? You’re coming after our $250?’ ” said Lisa Ochs, president of American Federation of Teachers-Kansas.

Later this week, her union is holding a school supply donation drive outside the Overland Park, Kansas office of Rep. Kevin Yoder, a vulnerable Republican seeking reelection.

Similar efforts are underway around the country. The National Education Association, under the hashtag #outofmypocket, is asking teachers to share via social media pictures of the sticky notes, pens and scissors that they purchase for their students.

The push comes as Republicans are increasingly anxious to deliver President Donald Trump a rare legislative victory before the end of the year, while special interest groups seek furiously to protect their favorite breaks.

Senate Republicans on Monday began writing their tax bill and the full House is expected later this week to vote on its own blueprint. Although the two versions are markedly different and will be reconciled by a special House and Senate committee, both call for scrapping the $250 tax deduction as lawmakers seek to simplify the tax code.

Republicans argue that the code will be easier to use and that most taxpayers will benefit from a doubling of the standard deduction.

Yoder said he has “great respect and admiration” for teachers and would support restoring the deduction if it was proposed. But he believes the tax overhaul would benefit them even more. He said that under the House's plan an Overland Park public school teacher making a median salary of $54,000 would save more than $1,800.

“What teacher wouldn't take the trade off of giving up a deduction that saves $62.50 for a simpler tax code that saves them more than $1,800?,” Yoder said. “This is just one of many deductions and exemptions for individuals and businesses that are being cleared out to pave the way for a simpler and fairer code."

Democrats argue that the tax bill wouldn’t help every middle class family. And teachers counter the $250 deduction is an important recognition of the work they do. And for some teachers, especially in low-income areas, it can mean the difference between a student equipped for school and one who is not.

"For teachers it's an acknowledgment: 'We know what you're doing and appreciate it,' " said Ochs.

The union estimates that teachers spend an average of $600 a year of their own money on school supplies, including pencils, pens, paper and crayons. They don’t have to itemize to receive the deduction.

“Republican leaders chose to ignore the sacrifice made by those who work in our nation’s public schools to make sure students have adequate books, pencils, paper and art supplies,” said NEA president Lily Eskelsen García.

The credit was created in 2002 by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who in 2016 secured a provision to make it permanent. She noted at the time that despite “tight budgets and their own modest salaries” teachers were spending their own money to purchase supplies and deserved to be reimbursed for “a small part of what they invest in our children's futures.”

The teachers’ unions are among the most politically active groups, contributing millions each election cycle, mostly to Democrats. The NEA spent nearly $20 million on candidates and political parties in 2016. The AFT spent nearly $12 million, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Although Democrats have been rebuffed in efforts to shape the tax legislation, they’ve seized on the elimination of the teacher credit in a bid to portray the Republican plan as skewed to the rich.

“If you’re a teacher and you bring supplies to school because your school isn’t able to supply everything in the classroom, you no longer can deduct that,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “Why? So they give the president’s cabinet tax deductions or eliminate the estate tax or (give the wealthy) any other tax advantages. There’s a cruelty to it.”

Republicans rejected those arguments, urging a look at the entire tax bill and how it would help people.

“Clearly this is helping real people,” Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., said last week, refuting Democratic charges that teachers would be hurt by the legislation. “It’s helping teachers. It’s helping students. It’s helping struggling families that are living paycheck to paycheck.”

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark