This piece first appeared in Liberal America on November 13, 2017.
Even if the rumors about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ impending resignation are true, the attack upon America’s teachers is just getting started.
The Supreme Court announced in September it is going to hear early next year the Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) case that threatens to flip the entire nationwide public sector to “right-to-work-for-less” status.
But even if labor unions emerge victorious from that battle as they did from last year’s Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association (CTA) case, a more insidious and perpetual punishment may ensue if Republicans successfully pass their tax plan.
Regardless of whether they teach in affluent or poor districts, America’s educators spend an average of $500 a year out of their own pockets on additional supplies their districts cannot or will not provide.
Many spend much more, like Oklahoma teacher Teresa Danks, who was reduced to panhandling after spending about $2,000 of her own money.
Under current tax laws, teachers can deduct from their income taxes up to $250 each year for classroom supplies.
The GOP tax reform bill seeks to eliminate that, though, as it would for select state and local officials and performing artists.
Some might regard this as merely being fiscally responsible. That is the Republican position: simplify the tax code and reduce taxes across the board.
Except it isn’t across the board.
While public sector employees will watch their incomes decline, corporations will still be allowed to deduct state and local taxes as they always have.
A Tax Policy Center analysis reports top earners will enjoy the most substantial cuts.
Imagine, literally taking money away from professionals with graduate degrees who dedicate their lives to educating America’s children so the wealthy can continue deducting business expenses.
The ramifications of this are more serious than teachers just having to dole out a little more for stationery, books, and art supplies.
It will affect parents and guardians as well.
Thomas McMahon is the President of the Mahopac Teachers’ Association (MTA) in the Mahopac Central School District, the the largest district in Putnam County, New York.
About the deleterious effects this plan would have, he said:
“If teachers can no longer deduct up to $250 in school supply spending for their classrooms, those expenses could be shifted to parents on supply lists. This means cutting a small tax dedication for teachers could impact every taxpayer with school-aged children.”
My wife and I spend well over a hundred dollars each fall on supplies like pencils, colored pencils, Post-its, highlighters, and books our kids’ teachers require.
Sometimes teachers include on their supply lists materials for students whose families cannot afford them, and the list grows every year.
My fourth-grade daughter has a friend whose father died, whose mother works three part-time jobs, and is on Medicaid. Those lists teachers send out at the end of the summer are too much for her.
We know how it goes.
With less money, we scrimp.
It happens every day.
A high school student needs AP study books for the upper-level classes she has decided to challenge herself with, hoping to increase her chances of getting into a good college. She could also benefit from a new laptop computer since most of her teachers are posting their assignments online.
But her parents are already struggling to pay rising food prices, put gas in the car, and squirrel away something for her college tuition. She is already working a part-time job to help them.
She could always borrow the AP study books from friends, I suppose, or use the local library–if she has the means to get there, and time.
Another example could be of a middle school sponsoring its annual trip to Washington, D.C. for which parents are expected to defray a share of the cost. Some families that may have been able to afford it in the past might find themselves unable to now.
No capital, no Capitol.
An elementary school is having a book fair. In the past a family may have had enough money to purchase a book or two so a student can experience the benefit of reading. With the added financial burden, however, perhaps it won’t any longer. There’s always the library, but that requires parents’ time and transportation, also harder to come by.
In more cash-strapped school districts, where resources and technology like computers have always been scarce, teachers and families must lay out more to provide students the basics most take for granted, like notebooks, pencils, and paper.
Some students report to school undernourished, under-clothed, and exhausted because they have to work or have been up worrying about things they shouldn’t have to, like how their parents are going to pay the mortgage or rent, whether they will have to move in with family to help make ends meet, or how their parents are managing cobbling together an existence on minimum wage to–hopefully–send them to college.
In my town, there are families with school-age children living in motels.
With an added burden on schools to fulfill unfunded state mandates, taxes continue to rise, squeezing families even more, causing school budgets to get voted down, leaving it to teachers and communities to make up the difference.
Without the tax deduction, though, it becomes punishing to be compassionate in a profession people pursue out of an inherent desire to give back and invest in their communities and their country.
“As educators spend more and more of their own funds each year to buy basic essentials, 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,”
In addition to the unraveling of fundamental regulations designed over decades to level the learning and teaching playing field, college tuition costs being the highest they have ever been, teachers’ salaries still woefully lower than comparable professions, the tax plan will also hurt an already ailing job market for prospective educators.
Said MTA President Tom McMahon:
“The GOP tax plan could cost our country 250,000 teacher jobs at a time when countless studies have said we are on the precipice of a teacher shortage in the next decade.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), also speaking out against the tax plan, said:
“They are giving huge estate tax breaks to the Trump kids while taking away working families’ ability to deduct the costs of higher education, union dues and even the money educators spend on their classrooms. We will do everything we can to fight this bill.”
Fight it we must.
This is more than just a battle between the haves and have-nots, rich and poor. It about our nation’s character. It’s about the investment we make in a future which will mean nothing less than the fate of our democracy.
Beating up on public-sector employees so the already rich can get richer is un-American.
Call your senators, and demand them to reject the GOP tax plan.
Image credit: cpapracticeadvisor.com