Delaware Academy sixth-grade teacher Ro Avila said she spends more than $1,000 of her own money some years on books and supplies for her classroom, as well as hygiene, clothing and food items for her less affluent students. Avila and other teachers could formerly write off up to $250 on their taxes for out-of-pocket classroom expenses like these, but not any more.
The ability to help offset elementary and secondary teachers’ out-of-pocket costs came through the Educator Expense Deduction, which, along with 54 other tax breaks, expired at midnight on Dec. 31.
Area superintendents and educators said this week they are disappointed with the expiration of the deduction. Several educators said they were unaware that it no longer exists.
Teachers’ spending on books, computer equipment, related software and services and other supplementary materials and supplies used in the classroom could be deducted “above the line,” meaning teachers could claim it even if they did not itemize their spending.
Paul Ahearn, president and owner of The Tax Professionals in Oneonta, said the Educator Expense Deduction is an example of laws written with “sunset provisions,” which means the law will no longer be in effect after a certain date, unless it is extended.
According to Ahearn, the teacher tax deduction has temporarily expired many times in the past, and its expiration doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s gone for good. For example, he said, the law expired last year, but was extended by Congress late in the year.
“It almost seems like a game they play each year,” Ahearn said. “Congress allows the tax breaks to expire and then usually renews them later on in the year. It makes planning ahead for taxes difficult.”
Stephanie Valle, the deputy chief of staff for Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, said the expiration of the deduction will have a significantly detrimental impact on teachers who use their own money to buy classroom supplies.
“Teachers know they will never get rich in their profession,” Valle said. “They do it because they love the craft and impact they have in children’s lives, but we are continuing to drag teacher morale down with misguided state and federal policies.”
South Kortright Central School Superintendent Patricia Norton-White echoed that sentiment Monday.
“Sadly, I believe this is one more negative message being directed toward teachers,” Norton-White said. “Our government, as well as our society, has to learn to see the value in the critically important jobs that teachers are charged with.”
Avila said she feels the expiration of the tax break is a misguided targeting of the wrong group of people, and felt the government should look elsewhere to make cuts.
“How much money is really going to be saved by taking away this tax break?” Avila said. “As much as people say otherwise, teachers are part of the middle class, and ending this deduction in such hard economic times is essentially closing a helpful tax loophole for the middle class.”
Ahearn said, although a disappointing loss, the deduction was not remarkably valuable to teachers, whose tax deduction of $250 was likely a small portion of their out-of-pocket expenses.
“Teachers easily spend much more than $250 of their own funds annually,” Norton-White said.
Jefferson Central School Principal Eric Whipple said the deduction was a nice way for educators to recoup a small portion of the money they personally use to help educate students in their classes.
“The classroom is a teacher’s second home,” Whipple said, “and this deduction was there to help teachers make that home an enjoyable place for children to spend their days.”
Delaware Academy Central School Superintendent Jason Thomson said the $250 deduction, although just “a drop in the bucket” of expenses for some teachers, was a nice acknowledgment of their generosity.
“Teachers, by nature, are kindhearted people who give very much,” Thomson said. “There are several teachers who contribute double or even triple that amount, whether it’s to enhance a lesson or supply something for kids who are less fortunate.”
Tiffany Bennett, who teaches kindergarten at Delaware Academy’s elementary school, said each year is different, but that she spends approximately $300 of her own money on supplies for her classroom. She also said she was not aware the tax deduction was no longer available.
“Especially around Christmas, I purchase a lot of materials for projects with my own money,” Bennett said. “I could try to budget the supplies in, but I don’t.”
Erin Mathewson, a third-grade teacher at Stamford Central School, said she also spends a lot of her own money on project materials and crafts for parents, and called the expiration of the tax break “really unfortunate.”
“Teachers are so passionate, and we want our students to have all the supplies they need to succeed and do well,” Mathewson said.
Mathewson said the amount of money she’s spent has increased with the introduction of Common Core and more-rigorous state testing. She said she has purchased many teacher-resource books to keep up with the higher standards and increased rigor of the new curriculum.
“I have spent more than $300 so far this (school) year...by the end of the year, I usually have spent around $400 or $500. This will definitely make teachers think twice about buying for their classrooms.”
Mathewson and Bennett both said the teachers’ supply budgets through the school cover basic materials, such as paper and markers, but the amount teachers are allotted has decreased.
Principal of Delaware Academy Elementary School Judi Byam said as school budgets get tighter, supply budgets for teachers are, unfortunately, also pared.
“Families are feeling the pinch, as well,” Byam said. “Some people have limited incomes and cannot afford to spend money on supplies for school. Teachers hate to see children go without, so they often purchase extras for those times.”
Byam, who said she taught elementary school for 23 years and has been an administrator for nine, said teachers have been paying out-of-pocket for materials and supplies for as long as she can remember.
“I know I have purchased glue sticks, pencils, paper, craft supplies, Kleenex and even snacks to keep on hand, in case a child doesn’t have something,” Byam said. “I am certain that I have spent more than $250 some years, just depending on the students and needs of the group. It will be unfortunate if teachers are no longer compensated for money spent on school expenses.”
Byam said, although she believes teachers should be allowed to deduct the $250, she does not believe the expiration of the tax break will stop teachers from purchasing necessary materials and supplies for their classrooms.
Byam also said she feels teachers’ spending toward classroom materials should be considered a “business expense.”
“A question to think about is this,” Byam said, “are other business-related expenses going to be eliminated for other professions? Travel, food … lodging costs?”
Ahearn said the government has until December of this year to decide whether it will extend the tax break.
“My guess is that they will extend it,” Ahearn said. “Teachers make up a huge group of people and, with the election year coming up, politicians will not want to upset that large of a group.”
Valle said Gibson, who represents Columbia, Delaware, Greene, Otsego, Schoharie, Sullivan and Ulster counties, is already working on it.
“Congressman Gibson is a co-sponsor of Rep. Sam Graves’ bill, HR 3490,” she said, “which amends the Internal Revenue code to extend the above-the-line deduction through 2019 and increases it to $500 for full-time educators who purchase classroom supplies out of their own pockets.”
Valle said the bill will also make a $250 deduction available to part-time teachers for the first time. In addition, the full deduction would be available to preschool teachers in state-recognized schools.
“This is another reason that Congressman Gibson believes that we need to reduce unfunded mandates,” Valle said. “Unfunded federal mandates stretch school budgets thin and teachers end up having to pay for basic classroom supplies because the district does not have the resources.”
Thomson said he is optimistic for the future of the teacher tax deduction.
“It’s a shame that it was allowed to expire,” Thomson said, “but I am hopeful that our area legislators, who are certainly pro-education, will recognize that this is important, and make it right.”