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Small tax break for teachers sacrificed to corporations

The House of Representatives just passed its tax reform bill, and few groups got a sneaky slap-in-the-face quite like K-12 teachers did. Now it’s up to the Senate to decide if those men and women should lose a small tax deduction in order to help pay for a major tax cut for others.

Teachers surrender their working hours, plus their “free time” for conferences, grading, making lesson plans, and building curriculum, all for a monthly paycheck that hardly compensates them for the time and energy put into their jobs.

With that paycheck, as I have seen done by my mom and both of my sisters who teach, it is not uncommon to have to budget for their own classroom supplies, as well as supplies for students who can’t afford their own.

Teachers typically spend about $500 a year, out of pocket, for school supplies. The small $250 tax break helps make them resent that supply run a little bit less.

This tax break, which costs $210 million per year, was made “permanent” in 2015. Now the House has decided that this tax break should be sacrificed to help fund other tax breaks, including reducing the estate tax by $1.2 billion.

But this issue isn’t just about the money. Being a teacher is the epitome of a thankless job. The tax break signifies a limited societal commitment to giving them back a sliver of what we as students and parents take from them each school year – 900-plus hours of their lives, the desire to get out of bed in the morning, etc.

The message that Congress is sending our educators is that commitment is not a two-way street. The tax bill favors corporations and businesses run in flow-through entities. But, as usual, teachers are on their own.

One of my sisters, a first- through third-grade special education teacher, spends well in excess of $250 per year on books and enrichment activities.

My oldest sister, a fifth-grade teacher, taught out of a portable with no air conditioning in Arizona. However, the unit did come with a homeless person who slept under it at night. She bought most of her own supplies as well.

Public school teachers may be losing a minor tax deduction, but a new “middle-class first” reform bill expands incentives that make it easier for parents to send their children to K-12 private schools using funds contributed to Section 529 plans.

Section 529 plans are currently limited to use for higher education costs. Experts estimate that expanding this subsidy to K-12 education will predominantly help upper class families who could already afford private school, thanks to increases in income limitations.

If the new tax plan succeeds in encouraging families to make the switch from public to private schools, the expansion could also have a devastating effect on the continually growing race and class disparity in the school system.

Poor children whose families can’t afford private school, even with the $10,000 tax-free saving plan, are left without the choice that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says invests in “students, not systems.”

Tax reform proposals are being marketed as a benefit to the working and middle class. If so, how did a $250 tax deduction for a full-time teacher, earning an average of $56,000 annually, get scrapped to make room for a major tax break that exclusively benefits the extremely wealthy?

To add insult to injury, Congress is also nudging upper-middle and upper class parents to get their kids out of public schools, which will no doubt cost public school teachers jobs and potentially the dignity of the institution they work for.

Budgetary and tax policy reflect our values. Removing a small tax break for K-12 teachers while simultaneously creating new tax breaks for removing kids from public schools says much about our values.

If what is said by the House proposal is not representative of our values, then perhaps we should ask for something different.

Sarah Hamill is a junior at Baylor University and is studying in Washington at American University this fall. Her father is James Hamill, director of Tax Practice at Reynolds, Hix & Co. in Albuquerque, and author of the tax column that appears in the Journal’s Business Outlook.