Legislation

Singletary: Teachers get a pitiful $50 tax deduction bump for supplies for 2022

This fall, my daughter will start her first year teaching at a public elementary school in Maryland. To set up her classroom, she has already spent about $250 of her own money on supplies and decorations for the kindergarten students she has yet to meet.

As she prepares to start work, I’ve watched her come in with bags of things she knows her students will need: activity materials, books, glue, tissues, markers and wipes. She has earmarked her graduation money for her kids, as she calls them.

Although inflation cooled in July, mostly due to falling gas prices, families are still feeling the financial pinch of high prices for everything from chicken to used cars.

No doubt, with inflation still at a 40-year-high, educators will be spending more this school year as the parents of their students struggle to cover rising rents and escalating food prices.

Teachers will end up buying notebooks, paper and pens for students whose families can’t afford to purchase what they need. Teacher salaries continue to supplement the budgets of school districts that can’t afford to stock or restock classrooms with all the needed supplies.

Overall, 94% of teachers spend their own money on classroom supplies, according to a 2018 report by National Center for Education Statistics. The average amount spent during the 2014-2015 school year was $478. The average amount spent was higher at $529 for teachers at city schools.

And prices have risen 25% since then, according to the Labor Department. At schools where 75% or more of the students were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch, a higher portion of teachers — 9% — spent more than $1,000.

To help ease their financial burden, there is a tax break for the materials teachers, instructors, counselors, principals or aides purchase. Just ahead of the school year, the Internal Revenue Service has reminded educators that they will be able to deduct up to $300 of out-of-pocket classroom expenses for 2022 when they file their federal income tax returns next year. It marks a $50 increase over the previous $250 deduction.

Then the IRS pointed out something stunning. “This is the first time the annual limit has increased since the special educator expense deduction was enacted in 2002,” the agency said. That is an “F” for effort for a tax code that is overly generous to wealthy individuals and large corporations.

Ever heard of the “carried-interest loophole?”

Well, you probably haven’t, because you aren’t a wealthy Wall Street manager running a hedge fund or private equity fund. This loophole allows these managers and other executives at investment firms to pay a lower long-term capital gains tax rate on their share of investment profits rather than get taxed at the 37% top rate for ordinary income.

To get the Inflation Reduction Act passed in the Senate, Democrats dropped their attempt to kill the carried-interest loophole. It was not the first attempt to close it. This loophole is like the Energizer Bunny that keeps going and going, making already wealthy folks that much richer.

Congress has repeatedly enacted legislation pumping up the tax breaks for big businesses run by executives who are paid obscene salaries. At the same time, educators were getting a lousy $250 tax deduction that only became permanent and indexed to inflation in 2015.

“Approximately one-third of corporations with assets greater than $1 billion and two-thirds of those with assets less than $1 billion report no federal income tax liability net of credits, in any given year,” according to a 2020 report by the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation.

In 2017, the education tax break was on the legislative chopping block during the negotiations for a major tax overhaul. The deduction would have been eliminated under a House Republican tax bill that justified the cut in the name of simplifying the tax code.

This is what educators struggling to teach in overcrowded classrooms hear from Congress: “No big tax break for you!”

My husband and I have pledged to fill the gaps whenever our daughter needs financial assistance for her classroom. But this shouldn’t be necessary. Our schools need better funding. Our teachers need to be paid better.

“There has been a long-trending erosion of teacher wages and compensation relative to other college graduates,” found a 2020 report by the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute. The report pointed out that public school teachers earn 19% less in weekly wages than non-teacher college graduates.

“This financial penalty discourages college students from entering the teaching profession and makes it difficult for school districts to keep current teachers in the classroom,” the report said.

The national average public school salary was $65,290 for the 2020-2021 school year, according to research by the National Education Association. Teachers are bringing home on average $2,150 less per year than they did a decade ago when adjusted for inflation, the National Education Association said. Since the 2012-2013 school year, average educator pay has failed to keep up with inflation.

My daughter was warned about the financial struggles of being a teacher by experienced educators and others. She’s still enthusiastic about the profession, but she has now decided to live at home because the rent for a decent apartment in the area where she will be teaching, coupled with living expenses, would make it difficult for her to save and invest for retirement.

“Mom, I don’t want to live paycheck to paycheck,” she said after giving up trying to find an affordable apartment. We have turned our teachers into social media beggars hoping the generosity of strangers on crowdfunding websites can get them needed supplies.

The tax-deductible amount for educators was and still is absurdly low. If Congress can allow wealthy Wall Street executives to get a generous tax break, then every penny that our teachers spend for their students should be deductible.


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