Teacher Tax Relief Act Leaves Many Teachers Behind
A step in the right direction, but too little for too few
by Kathleen Alape Carpenter - Editor
When it comes to using their own money to purchase classroom materials and supplies, teachers have pockets deeper than Captain Kangaroo's. An effort to provide some relief for teachers who spend significant amounts to equip classrooms and enhance school programs, the Teacher Tax Relief Act allows some educators to recoup at least part of what they spend. However, many feel that this step in the right direction is too much of a baby step. And it ignores entirely the nation's preschool teachers.
The Teacher Tax Relief Act of 2001 provides that K-12 teachers, instructors, counselors, principals and aides who work at least 900 hours during a school year in public and private elementary and secondary schools may (this year and next) subtract up to $250 of qualified expenses when figuring their adjusted gross income (AGI). In the past, educators could take such expenses only as miscellaneous itemized deductions, which must be reduced by two percent of the AGI. The new law allows the deduction from the AGI, making it unnecessary to itemize deductions in order to benefit from the new law.
Senator John Warner (R-VA) co-sponsored the Teacher Tax Relief Act of 2001. Speaking on the senate floor on behalf of the bill, he called teachers "overworked, underpaid, and all too often, under-appreciated." He said, "So many of our teachers, particularly those in the lower grades and those in schools which, for whatever reason, might not be as well financed as other institutions in our state, have taken from their own pockets, funds to buy school supplies which are needed to help their particular students in their classroom perform their educational responsibilities."
In a statement posted on his website, Sen. Warner says, "It is now estimated that the average teacher spends $521 out of their own pocket each year on classroom materials - materials such as pens, pencils and books. First year teachers spend even more, averaging $701 a year on classroom expenses...The fact is that these out-of-pocket costs place lasting financial burdens on our teachers. This is one reason our teachers are leaving the profession. Little wonder that our country is in the midst of a teacher shortage."
As Warner points out, first year teachers and those in poorly funded districts suffer the greatest disadvantage. With lower salaries and without the cache of materials veteran teachers have accumulated, new teachers scurry to purchase, then stock, classroom shelves with what they need to begin their work. Those in poorer districts often find themselves shopping for even the most basic supplies such as paper, pencils and crayons, unable to obtain funding assistance from the district or the students' parents.
Our teachers have made a personal commitment to educate the next generation and to strengthen America. While many people spend their lives building careers, our teachers spend their careers building lives. The Teacher Tax Relief provisions in this bill go a long way towards providing our teachers with the recognition they deserve by providing teachers with important and much needed tax relief.
-Sen. John Warner
David Baez reports in his article, "NY Teachers Subsidize Classes Out of Own Pockets," (Columbia University Cityscape, October 2002) that the New York City public school teachers he interviewed spent amounts ranging from $350 to $3,000, with an average of about $1,000 per teacher. Baez heard from teachers who claim that out of pocket spending is necessary if they are to meet the mandates of the Board of Education's curriculum and provide an effective program for students. A special fund reimburses NYC teachers only up to $200, leaving them to carry the remainder of the financial burden, even when the books and materials provided by teachers are required by the board of education to be present in the classroom, but are not supplied by the school district.
New teacher Cynthia Cordero told Baez, "We have to have a library in every classroom with 250 books. They didn't even give me one book. The $200 they give us is nothing compared to what we spend of our own money." And books aren't the only necessity Cordero buys with her own money. "We have to buy everything, from paper clips to maps," she said.
The New York City teachers' spending pattern is not unusual. A study conducted by Quality Education Data showed that each year K-8 teachers spend over a billion dollars of their own money on classroom materials, and those who teach in poorer districts spend more than their colleagues in more affluent districts. According to the QED study, the typical K-8 teacher spends $520 out of pocket each year. The $520 figure is a 16% increase since their 1999 study, and the current downslide in the economy means that the trend upward in teacher spending will likely continue.
While estimates of the amount of teacher spending differ, all evidence indicates that teachers spend substantial amounts for the classroom supplies and materials they believe are necessary in order to do the job expected of them. IRS Commissioner Charles O. Rossotti acknowledges significant teacher spending. "Many teachers dip into their own pockets when funds for classroom supplies run out before the school year does," he says in a statement issued by the IRS.
However, it is apparent that teachers dip into their own pockets sooner rather than later in the school year, often before the first day of school. They are doing more than refilling empty glue bottles near the close of the school year. Many begin each year facing supply closets which provide little of what they need to start the new year, and without the books and materials necessary to make lessons effective.
When first grade teacher Pat Ritter heard about the $250 deduction through a mailring on the Teachers.Net website her reaction was, "Oh my gosh, $250? What a joke! I spend that before school starts in August!"
Educators in the 15 percent tax bracket who apply the new deduction will save only up to $38 on their taxes when claiming the full $250.
-Washington Education Association
Teachers.Net forums have been buzzing with reaction to the new tax law. One teacher called the new tax break "a generous offer that the IRS is making for anyone who can't itemize. But it is not nearly enough. I pay that out in the month of August alone. So I will take the $250 and then put the rest of my expenditures on Schedule A."
$$$ from the family budget
Some teachers are able to depend upon a spouse's larger salary to help subsidize the cost of classroom supplies. The spouses' reactions to the spending vary. "My hubby knows and gives his blessing. Part of the reason I can do it is because he makes so much more money than I do," explained one teacher.
Barbara D. Martin says, "Since I usually spend $4,000 or more each year on classroom items, I will not use the $250 but will itemize. I only wish I could keep it down to $250. So does my husband!"
It is common for teachers to conceal the extent of their spending. Many described under-reporting to husbands what they actually spend each year, even when an honest accounting could result in less tax liability.
"I don't dare add up how much I spend or my husband would make me choose a new profession!" exclaims Cassie L.
Dana Sanders, new to third grade this year, has spent at least four times more than the $250 deduction for magazine subscriptions, professional books on discipline, and activity books for the kids. "My husband forbids me to spend any more on my class, but I still have half the year to go," she worries.
"Most teachers at my school spend between $500 and the $2500," says Teri Delahousie Norris. " It's insane when you think about it. I wrote to California Governor Davis. His cutbacks mean that teachers will spend more to educate California children. We do it because we're …crazy? …dedicated? A combination!" concludes Norris.
Another California resident, sixth grade teacher Darlene Tate says, "I think [the new tax break] is a nice gesture on the part of the person who thought it up, but it barely scratches the surface of what I spend on classroom supplies each year. Prior to moving to California, I taught in North Carolina. I spent an average of $3000 each year on classroom supplies, supplemental teaching materials, and manipulatives for student use. Since moving to California the amount is less, but since I don't currently itemize deductions, I haven't kept track of the expenses. I do know, however, that it's well above $1000. In our school, teachers get a $350 allowance for supplies. That doesn't last long when the school is required to supply students with pencils, pens, and paper in addition to any other materials they need to do any other activity we assign. A nice gesture, but that's all it is."
Someone has to pay for what they need
Often, teachers feel they have little choice. They see a need and no one else coming forward to fill it. Hope Swann pays for the snacks her first graders consume each day. "That alone gets to be very expensive." But she feels she has no choice since many of the children wouldn't have a snack if she didn't provide it.
Teri, referring to herself as "Spends-Too-Much," is an upper elementary teacher who "won't list the figure because it's ridiculous. I spend it because I can and because it makes my life in the classroom easier. I don't for a moment forget the new teachers who can't and don't...further making the system inequitable.
"I think ALL teachers should be given an amount yearly to spend on their classrooms," Teri insists. "But, that would mean the state and federal governments REALLY believe that education is important and are putting their money where their mouths are,"
$250 is a drop in the bucket to most teachers--my expenditures run $1500-2000 a year.
- Mary Hitz, Tulsa
Another teacher's upper elementary grade students have a better science experience because their teacher provides materials for experiments. "I would like to be able to claim everything I buy for my classroom," Sarah says, "Since I come from a low economic school there is very little money and I find myself buying all the supplies so that students can have hands-on science experiments. It gets expensive!" Sarah declares, "I am a new teacher and have spent much more than $250 on my classroom and I would love to see some of that money back!"
D.S. who teaches high school in Philadelphia plans to take advantage of the $250 deduction. "I usually spend at least $2000 per year. That is down from about $4000 per year my first 4 - 5 years of teaching. I teach in a large urban school district. When I first started teaching, there weren't books. I worked a part time job to pay the bill. Now, in my 10th year, I have a lot of materials I've bought. I assume a lot of us spend "out of pocket" to maintain a reasonably equipped classroom, buy printer ink, etc."
High school teacher Laurie D. says, "This year, I spent $683.91 of my own money. I've never kept track before, and this amount floored me. I'm sure it's probably more, too."
Cindy Bernat invests her time rather than her money to "earn" what she spends on her classroom. "This year I worked our school booster BINGO giving me $50 each month to spend in the classroom. I haven't used my own money for the first time in 15 years!"
Donna Ransdell teaches fifth grade. In addition to many other materials, Donna has purchased for her fifth grade classroom: four sets of bookcases, 3-bin-storage basket table, 1 file cabinet, microwave oven, five video drawer cases, five audio cassette drawer cases, and a utility table. She points out that many teachers don't realize how much they spend on "little things like the computer paper, paper clips, staples that we use at home for school…and the trade magazine subscriptions such as Mailbox magazine, advance trips to local places to check out possible field trips for your class, cleaning supplies that the school doesn't provide. $250 per year is a drop in the bucket," she concludes.
A middle school math teacher finds it's easier just to reach into his pocket to purchase necessary supplies. "It is just a lot easier to buy it yourself instead of going through the paperwork and hassle of ordering it through the school."
One substitute teacher expressed hope that she is eligible for the $250 deduction. "I spend about $5 each day on things for the classroom. An elementary grade teacher even pays for a classroom assistant. "I spend about $2500 a year. These past few months I bought my own aide for 6 hours a week to help with the paper work. With 26 kids writing 5 paragraph essays and everything else, I was drowning in it! I buy books, pens, pencils, special paper, ink cartridges for my printer (which I use only for school), bookmarks, sheet protectors, folders, film, film developing."
Bill who teaches a K-1 class in Washington is philosophical about his spending. "I spend in the neighborhood of $1000 each year. I know local teachers who spend in excess of $2000. I know many who spend less. I choose to spend what I do because I need items to do the best for kids." Then he voices a concern shared by a large segment of the teaching community. "I regret that some of you who teach are not considered teachers by the IRS."
Bill is referring to the fact that, while all K-12 educators who work at least 900 hours per year in public and private schools, including classroom aides, can claim the $250 deduction, teachers in preschool programs are not eligible.
Preschool teachers left behind
Preschool teacher Sue Rotolo in New Orleans spends about $3,000 each school year on materials and supplies for her students. But she is not eligible to file for the $250 tax break---inexplicably it includes only those working in grades K-12.
Vanessa Levin, who teaches in Texas says, "I teach public Pre-K in Texas, one of the few states that offer free pre-k in the public schools. I am employed by the school district and receive the same pay and benefits as any other teacher, however pre-k teachers are not eligible for the tax deduction, even though I typically spend about $1,000 per year on the classroom and another $200-$300 on workshops."
"I have to do everything a "regular" teacher does and then some. I fill out report cards, hold parent-teacher conferences, have a yearly observation, etc., but we are not included in the tax break. It's only a small portion of what I spend annually, but it's still not fair."
-Vanessa Levin, Preschool teacher
"All teachers should be included. This is the age where foundations are built. How can you push things like 'Smart Start' and 'More at Four' and not include Pre-K, preschool, and daycare teachers [in this tax break]? preschool teacher Keisha asks.
Some resist spending
"I guess I'm in the minority," Stacy observed after hearing about the spending habits of colleagues. "With book club orders I may be just around $200. In past years I've spent under $100 (for beads, pipe cleaners, and felt for Christmas art projects; Christmas holiday pencils for the kids as a gift, Valentine hearts for graphing, etc.). I just refuse to spend gobs of my own money to supplement public education. If I find an idea that requires me to go out and buy a bunch of stuff, I'll either ask for the supplies or not do the project. If that makes me a bad teacher, then so be it, but we are so under-compensated as it is, why should I fork over any more of those hard earned dollars?" she asks.
William D'Antuono, a teacher of first grade says, "I urge all teachers not to spend one penny of their salary for school supplies! When was the last time your doctor gave you the medicine you needed? Or the lawyer gave you free advice...the auto mechanic gave you a free part? I have used my own money for my classroom for everything I thought I needed: craft materials, books, decorations, pencils, food, etc. in the past. However, how can public education be fair for all children if the teacher next door is using his/her own money for basic supplies or to enhance a lesson?"
D'Antuono sees a political motive behind under-funding school supply budgets. "Don't you realize we are being used by politicians? They expect us to use our own family's money to enhance public education. After all, we all want to make a difference; that's why we are teachers! Imagine if all teachers refused to spend one penny of their salary for classroom materials."
According to Janet Holbrook, "Over the years, I've really changed my personal policy toward spending money on school. I used to spend lots out of my pocket. I now NEVER buy consumables out of my pocket (sequins, food, etc.). If parents or the school don't provide it, then we don't do that project. I will buy things that last and make my job easier, such as a children's book so I don't have to go find it at a library."
Roveen Yoder teaches first grade. "I do agree that no other profession spends money the way that we teachers do but I sometimes wonder if I don't do it as much for myself as I do for the students. It makes my job easier and more interesting. The year we built our home I really tried not to spend so much and I did better...but once we moved in and got into the groove of payments it was back to the spending habit. The only saving grace is a daughter who is beginning her teaching career. My husband is very supportive (maybe because his mother was a teacher). When I returned to teaching after staying home to raise my family, we had the discussion. 'Do you want me to save the receipts for tax purposes or throw them away and you'll never know? If I save them, I don't want to be yelled at.' It has worked for us. Only a few times has he asked, is all this spending necessary? At tax time the total is always over $2000."
"I agree that we shouldn't have to spend anything from our own pockets, but it makes my life a little easier if I invest in 'stuff' for the classroom and ultimately for the kids. We are all in the same boat, and it's full!" says Paul, a first grade teacher in Missouri.
Pam Elliott of Maine is a 24 year veteran of the classroom. Her annual salary is approximately $45,000. She says, "I spend about $2,000.00 each year. Giving us credit for $250.00 is a start and more than we've had in the past. But I wish we could be credited for what we really spend to make learning more fun and interesting. I've taught for 21 years at this school and figure I've put back a whole year's salary in that time. I don't know of any other profession where this happens. Once again, the teacher is on the short end of the $$$$ stick! It's a good thing we love what we do! It's just too bad that the powers that be count on that fact!"
I've taught for 21 years at this school and figure I've put back a whole year's salary in that time.
- Pam Elliott, Maine
However, Nancy disagrees with the assertion that teachers are alone in the way they invest in the tools of their trade. "We are not the only profession that has to buy their own tools. My husband is a nurse and owns his own stethoscope, blood pressure cuff, and a whole lot of books (some costing $200 each). He has professional magazines and [incurs] many other work related expenses. He must renew his license, pay his union dues, and take continuing education classes. My son is a mechanic. He owns thousands of dollars worth of tools and manuals. My tools are googly eyes and chenille stems. My books are written by Dr. Seuss."
It is not unusual for teachers to purchase their own copy paper for classroom newsletters and student work papers. According to first grade teacher Christine in Arizona, "I went to Costco this week and bought a case of paper out of my pocket so I would have paper to xerox on. We must buy any and all supplies we need or want."
After hearing about the number of teachers who wouldn't have copy paper if they didn't purchase it themselves, Lisa responded, "I am very fortunate. My district supplies all of our white copy paper."
According to Lisa, "In addition to an adequate allotment for glue, writing paper, construction paper, pencils, staples, tape, etc., we get an additional $500-600 to spend on other materials...pocket charts, classroom games, puzzles, flash cards, teacher resource books, etc. We are not allowed to order decorations or bulletin board supplies. We are told to spend all that we are given so that we get the same budget the next year. They'll cut it if we don't spend it. So, we spend, spend, spend!" Lisa's situation illustrates the disparity between what supplies and money various school districts provide, or don't provide, for their teachers.
Noting Lisa's situation, a first grade teacher responded, "The differences are amazing! Some get nothing, some teachers get a little, some a lot. What IS wrong with this picture?"
Tara, summed up what seems to be the consensus among teachers who spend large amounts of money on supplies and materials for their students. "I try not to spend too much of my own money, but it happens, and I try not to stress too much about it. I love my job; I love the kids. Sure, we should be paid more. But I'm not going to let 'my kids' go without the resources they need."
So teachers continue to reach deep into their pockets…
For more information:
IRS Publication 3991, Highlights of the Job Creation and Worker Assistance Act of 2002, is available on the IRS Web site at http://www.irs.gov or by calling 1-800-TAX-FORM (1-800-829-3676).
Washington Education Association article,
"Congress offers small tax break for school employees who spend own money on classroom supplies"
Teacher Tax Relief Act of 2002 – Senator John Warner
N.Y. Teachers Subsidize Classes Out of Own Pockets
By David Baez
Interested in urging your elected officials to extend the Teacher Tax Relief Act to pre-k teachers, and to increase the amount that can be deducted? Here's how to contact your U.S. Representative and U.S. Senators:
U.S. Representatives http://www.house.gov/writerep.
Comment line: 202-456-1111
TTY/TDD Comment line (for the Hearing Impaired Only) 202-456-6213