I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, December 30, 2013

Teachers Are Professionals, Not Saints

Via Fred Klonsky, here's yet another way to screw teachers out of money:

STATELINE (WIFR) -- Local teachers may be forced to spend more of their own money on school supplies next year, now that a federal tax break is about to expire.
Teachers are able to deduct up to $250 on what they spend on classrooms supplies including workbooks, pencils, and posters. Congress hasn't passed a measure that would extend that tax break into 2014. Teachers shopping at The Three R's in Rockford say if the benefits went away, they'd still buy supplies for their classrooms, but this could affect their personal spending.
"I teach with a passion and I want to provide different perks for my kids," said Joe Kowalski, an ESL teacher at Marsh Elementary. "I'm in this profession because I love it, I love working with the kids and making the world a better place. And if I lose the $250 deduction, it'll hurt me more on a personal level then on a professional level."
The National Education Association estimates that teachers spend an average of $400 annually on supplies.
So that kinda sucks; nobody wants to pay more taxes. But let's step back a bit from this and look for the unsaid messages within the tax deduction itself.

I've been doing my own taxes for years. One thing I've noticed in reading how-to articles about tax preparation is that deductions and credits for middle-class folk are often sold to us as "gifts" or "breaks." The teacher tax credit is no different; here, for example, is Fox Business's take:
A Tax-Deduction Apple for Teachers
Teaching takes a toll on many educators' pocketbooks as they routinely buy supplies for their financially strapped schools. Over the past few years, they've enjoyed a tax break for such academic dedication. 
Teachers and other educators can deduct up to $250 they spent last year to buy classroom supplies. 
Even better, the deduction is claimed directly on Form 1040, meaning there's no need to itemize to get the break. Rather, it's an adjustment to your income, helping cut your tax bill by reducing your overall income. The less income to tax, the lower the tax bill. 
While every little bit helps, the educator expenses deduction is indeed relatively small. But because it's an adjustment to income and doesn't require itemizing expenses, more school employees should now be able to claim at least a portion of their class-related expenditures.
In this telling, it's an "apple" - a perk - for teachers to "enjoy" a tax break when they go out and spend their own money on supplies for their students. "Even better," the break isn't itemized: golly, aren't we lucky!

In Pennsylvania, the legislature is considering their own version of the law; look at the hidden assumptions, however, on which it is based:
Walk into any Pennsylvania classroom and you're bound to find students using items that were purchased by their teacher who paid for them out of pocket, said veteran Harrisburg School District teacher Rich Askey.
In these days of district belt-tightening, this practice has become an “essential fact of life” for students to have what they need to learn, said Rep. Jim Roebuck of Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee.
See, it is, according to this Democratic politician, an “essential fact of life” that teachers must give up their own money to give their students the basics they need for school. Rep. Roebuck is from Philly; perhaps he's not yet heard, but another “essential fact of life” is that his home city has led the nation in  screwing teachers out of their wages and other compensation, all while undermining their right to collectively bargain.

Philadelphia is a school system that has been chronically underfunded for years. But this, apparently, is the best Harrisburg can do: give a little tax break to teachers in the hopes that they pick up the slack:
This sacrifice by teachers has not gone unnoticed by Democratic and Republican state lawmakers who want to give educators something back for this demonstration of their dedication to their profession.
Let's be clear: PA's lawmakers aren't "giving something back" to teachers: they are expecting them to dip into their already modest wages so they can make up for the failure of politicians to adequately fund public schools. So when a politician like Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Allegheny, says something stupid like this:
“There’s no more worthy cause for a tax credit than to help our educators provide for the bare necessities for our students,” Wheatley said.  
Understand that he is admitting that he has failed in his job to provide schools what they need. Of course, the truly awful Tom Corbett can't even commit to helping out teachers even this a little bit:
Gov. Tom Corbett's press secretary Jay Pagni said it would be premature to comment on this proposal until the Legislature has an opportunity to do a fiscal analysis.
I'm sure Corbett will do a "fiscal analysis" of this just as soon as he's finished with the "fiscal analysis" of how his good buddy and biggest political contributor, Vahan Gureghian, is making a fortune off of a charter school scheme that wound up further screwing the teachers of the Chester-Upland school district.

When those teachers offered to work without pay, many of our leaders - including the president himself - sang their praises. But think about what these elites were really saying: when governments fail to adequately tax corporations and the wealthy so they can provide basic public services, teachers and other public workers are expected to give back their pay to make up the difference.

This is an extremely useful construction for politicians and pundits who want to have it both ways. Chris Christie, as I've written before, is a master at telling this particular story:
I think for those people who are feeling discouraged right now, because they're going to have to pay a percentage of their health insurance premium, or they're going to have to pay one or two points more towards a lifetime pension, then I would suggest to you respectfully that those people have completely lost touch with reality, and probably didn't have the passion to begin with.
See how it works? If a teacher dares to say that maybe he shouldn't be the one to shoulder all of the financial problems of his state while billions of dollars are given away in tax expenditures and other giveaways that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy, then that teacher isn't "passionate" enough. Christie makes out "good" teachers to be saints; but his test for canonization is whether those teachers are willing enough to take money out of their own bank accounts.


Chez Christie.

Yeah, times are tough for everyone.

Here's the truth: school spending is still down years after the Great Recession. There's evidence teachers are spending more of their own money on supplies. I'll miss the teacher supply tax credit, but let's also acknowledge that it has normalized the notion that public school teachers ought to be making greater and greater personal sacrifices in response to the failure of politicians to adequately fund our schools.

I'd gladly give up my small tax "break" if it gets people thinking that teachers buying their own chalk is not an acceptable state of affairs.


Mitchell Robinson, Ph.D. said...

Yeah, this notion that teaching is a calling, or a mission, and not a profession, is dangerous for us as teachers. Teaching is not a calling, it's a profession. And a darned hard one at that. To think that it's somehow part of our "job" to purchase materials out of pocket because the schools are abdicating their responsibility to provide necessary equipment and supplies is insulting and absurd.

Do we expect auto mechanics to buy tires or transmissions out of pocket if the garage can't cover the cost?

Do we expect physicians to cover the cost of medications or pace makers if the hospital doesn't provide them?

Do we expect the chef to stop at the grocery and pay for supplies for that night's service out of their own pocket if the restaurant doesn't provide the proper menu items?

Of course we don't--and we understand it would be naive and silly to even think of it.

But somehow as teachers there has become an expectation that when the school decides not to supply tissues, or paper for the copy machine, or phones in classrooms, or soap and toilet paper for the bathrooms, that the teachers will pick up the slack.

In fact, we are now seeing a huge uptick in the growth of web sites like TeachersPayTeachers.com, where teachers are encouraged to pay other teachers for copies of classroom teaching materials--moving the onus for providing teaching materials from the school to the individual teacher.

In a perverse way, I'm happy that this tax credit is going away--maybe then teachers will just stop subsidizing these items and parents and school leaders will realize where the responsibility really lies for providing these things.

Giuseppe said...

Geezus, what else can they do to screw teachers, to torture them until they go mad from all the abuse. Never fear, there's more blows to come.....this from an article in NJSpotlight: "Second, the governor has already been vocal about some of the unfinished business in education he wants to tackle in his second term. In particular, the governor has gone on the record saying that he will pursue the elimination of constraints that currently require school district leaders to make layoff decisions based on years of experience." In other words, Christie will be going after LIFO and so teachers with many years of experience will have a big fat target on their backs. The WAR on teachers and their unions never ends.

Mrs. King's music students said...

Spending your own money on school supplies is a damned if you don't and damned if you do situation. My supervisor in Trenton hated it when music teachers spent their own money. She believed it enabled bldg admins and BOE to continue short-changing the arts. On the other hand, many teachers thought it was worth it to meet the standards for Perf Arts and level the playing field for underserved students. And it's lots more than $400.00. More like $2500.00 and still duct taping the instruments together for Spring Concert.

Mrs. King's music students said...

And how about this FEMA? When my brother did my taxes last year he roared at my $5000.00 mandatory flood insurance, which jumped right out at him since I was only making $55,000 at the time. Turns out I'm not even eligible to collect FEMA no matter what - just to pay into it. A veritable sea of incompetence in every direction. And you just know teachers will get blamed for this too.

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