Opinion: Burchett bill raising teacher deduction for supplies to $1,000 should be a no-brainer

Staff Photo / Supplies are stored in cubbies in a classroom at Howard Connect Academy on Monday, Aug. 5, 2019.
Staff Photo / Supplies are stored in cubbies in a classroom at Howard Connect Academy on Monday, Aug. 5, 2019.

If body builders can deduct the cost of body oil from their income taxes, if brides can take a charitable deduction for their donated wedding dresses and if certain Native American tribes can deduct $10,000 a year for repairs on their whaling boat, and each of the above is apparently OK with the Internal Revenue Service, then raising the deduction for teachers on the out-of-pocket expenses they pay seems like a no-brainer.

That is what U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tennessee, is hoping with the bipartisan bill he introduced in the House along with U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, D-Illinois.

Their bill would allow qualified educators to deduct from their taxes $1,000 — up from the current $300 — on certain out-of-pocket expenses. The Educators Expense Deduction Modernization Act of 2023 also changes the words "elementary and secondary school educators" in the current law to "eligible educators" because staff members beyond teachers also reach into their pockets for expenses for students and schools.

Teachers in Hamilton County schools are now about a month into the 2023-2024 school year, and national statistics show each of them will spend an average of $860 over the year on classroom supplies.

That amount, according to Adoptaclassroom.org, is up from $600 in 2015 and $745 in 2020. The category where the largest percentage of teachers (84%) spent their money is basic school supplies (pencils, paper, notebooks). Following behind the basic supplies are books (55%), inclusive/adaptive materials (55%) and technology (44%).

Why do they do it?

If your life has been positively affected by a teacher, you know they do it because they care deeply for the students they teach, coach, counsel, serve or otherwise interact with.

According to Adoptaclassroom.org, 79% say they do it because "they want every student to have the same opportunities in the classroom," 58% because "their students are experiencing poverty, homelessness and/or hunger at home and they want to help meet their needs at school," 48% because "their students experienced a lot of challenges due to the pandemic and need more resources," and 47% because "their classroom budget does not go as far as it did before due to inflation."

We know, for instance, of an educator who keeps a large supply of oats and honey Nature Valley crunchy granola bars — no nuts due to potential allergies, of course — on hand because, either, the students haven't gotten much to eat at home or don't find the — usually free to them — school lunches appetizing.

Educators at high poverty schools often indicate spending more on supplies than their counterparts at other schools to help make up for what parents may not be able to afford for their students. And constantly having to spend that money, surveys say, are at least a contributing factor to driving some of those teachers from the profession.

Current IRS regulations raised the deductible amount for educators to $300 for the 2022 tax year. Prior to that, it had been $250 for decades. The amount in future years will rise in $50 increments based on inflation adjustments.

Public and private school educators, in a K-12 school for at least 900 hours during the school year, can claim the deduction even if they take the standard deduction on their tax form. Beyond classroom teachers, they can be principals, counselors or other aides.

Their deductions are limited to books, supplies and other materials used in the classroom; equipment, including computer equipment, software and services; COVID-19 protective items (face masks, soaps, hand sanitizers, gloves, barriers, etc.); and professional development courses related to the curriculum they teach (though other tax benefits may help more).

The Association of American Educators has advocated for a $1,000 deduction — plus up to $400 toward home internet expenses.

Burchett's bill doesn't include the internet expenses, but he said the higher deduction amount has been long needed.

"I come from a family of public educators," he said in a statement, "and time and time again I saw them gladly spend their own limited income on their students. The federal government has no business putting such a low cap on what teachers can deduct from their taxes when they are being so generous with these kids."

The bill upon introduction was referred to the House Committee on Ways and Mean.

In an era where Congress is divided politically, where funding for Ukraine, funding for the border and funding for climate change are all divisive topics, we hope this little measure finds its way into whatever mammoth omnibus bill is wrought to fund the country for fiscal 2024.

Our educators, underpaid and overstressed at a minimum, deserve at least this.

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