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By Craig Braack

Confer Column: Generous teachers deserve bigger tax credits

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“It’s time that we afforded teachers the appropriate recognition and reward for their generosity”

By Bob Confer

The school year may have ended a month ago, but the pressure is already on to get ready for the next one. Retailers have begun their back-to-school campaigns in earnest, and students and parents alike are gobbling up supplies.

And, so are teachers.

They, too, are filling shopping carts and baskets, securing the best deals possible in order to provide the necessary things to the numerous kids who don’t or can’t have them and to add something extra to the lessons they are providing to all students.

They aren’t using the school’s expense card. They aren’t billing back the district.

They are doing it on their own dime. 

Yes, the caring professionals with whom we entrust much intellectual and social development of our children give more than self, time, and patience to get the job done in the best way possible – they also give a great deal of their money.

It’s an increasingly large (and increasingly necessary) give, too.

Since the Great Recession and then through the socioeconomic events that have occurred since, almost everything has been at one time or another on the chopping block of school boards and administrators. Due to economic losses that had harmed their communities, the tax cap of law, and a self-imposed tax cap (you couldn’t dramatically increase property taxes on financially-stressed families during the Great Recession, the pandemic years, and the inflation years), schools had to strike from their budgets sports, the arts, teachers’ aides, and more. One of the line items that has faced such cutbacks and constant scrutiny is “supplies” – a line item, which, by the way, was never even close to fully-funded.

Studies have found that more than 90% of teachers spend their own money on classroom supplies. Prior to the pandemic, the average amount spent per year was around $500. Over the past few years, due to inflation’s significant impact on those supplies’ costs and families’ buying power, that amount has grown to more than $800.

Although one might consider it a job-related expense, it’s much more than that. They are giving to the children as a whole and also to individual children and their families. Such generosity needs to be properly rewarded with tax deductions, just as all donations are.

As reasonable as that sounds, it hasn’t been administered that way at the federal level.

When it comes to their federal tax returns, K-12 teachers are allowed to deduct up to $300 of what they paid for books, supplies, equipment, and other materials used in the classroom. That higher amount, new to this past tax year, was a $50 increase over the previous threshold that had been in place since 2002.

Not only has the ceiling for the deduction never matched reality, it never matched inflation. $1.70 today matches the buying power of a dollar in 2002. So, had that deduction value kept pace, the $250 of old should really be $425 today.

Even then, that deduction amount is much too small. It would have been close to the pre-pandemic expense, but it’s just half of what’s being spent on average now. The deduction should not have a cap or, if it must be capped, it should be as high as $1,200. Remember, $864 is only the average, so there are many teachers spending far more than that, and it is not unreasonable to assume that in a poor rural or inner-city district, some teachers are spending well above it.

It’s time that we afforded teachers the appropriate recognition and reward for their generosity which they have always been doing without any expectation of tax credits or reimbursement. If you gave to a church or non-profit you might expect a deduction (you’d be surprised by the number of folks who won’t give unless they are guaranteed a tax credit), so the charity of educators should be given its due, especially when one considers that a typical young teacher just starting out in America makes well under $40,000, has assumed thousands of dollars of college debt, and is trying to do what he or she can to make our kids – and our communities — better.

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