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, April 14, 2014

Repost For Tax Day: The Teacher Supply Tax Credit & Why We Aren't Saints

I'm reposting this from December of last year in "celebration" of Tax Day tomorrow.

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.


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