THE BLOG

Stealing From Teachers

02/03/2014 12:51 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2014

When teachers sit down to complete their federal taxes this year, they will see one big change: the $250 classroom supply deduction. The failure to extend this tax break for teachers has gone largely unnoticed. It should be a source of outrage.

As a first-year teacher, I spent well over $250 of my own money. Computer paper was white gold. We had a neighborhood watch system for office supply deliveries. I remember catching a shipment of ink cartridges that were waiting to be scuttled away into a supply closet. Looking at them, I knew there wouldn't be enough to go around. So I grabbed five and slipped them covertly into the classrooms of my fellow English teachers.

"Where did you get this?" one of my colleagues asked incredulously as I handed her the cartridge, still in its shiny opaque wrapper.

I looked from left to right, making sure that no one was looking.

"Shhhhh," I said. "These are going on lockdown. Don't say a word."

We hadn't had printer ink for the entire first semester. It was almost May before the cartridges were finally distributed like wartime rations. Co-conspirators, we each took another one and saved them for next year, when none arrived at all.

The elimination of the classroom supply tax deduction implies two things about education in this country:

1. $250 is not a lot of money to a teacher.
2. Our schools are well-funded now.

We all know that neither of these claims is true. I spent my own money on food for students who would linger in my classroom during lunchtime, undocumented adolescents who were afraid to apply for free-and-reduced lunch. I bought books on rhetoric so that my students would pass the Advanced Placement exam. And for me, $250 was enough to cover a monthly student loan payment.

Democrats frequently suggest closing corporate tax loopholes and taxing the wealthy more. But while they rail against Republican obstructionism, they fail to defend measures that are already in place to help middle-class taxpayers. Imagine the visibility they could have brought to the plight of teachers -- a plight worsened by Obama initiatives like the Common Core and Race to the Top -- by insisting on the extension of this deduction.

Perhaps it is a "political reality" -- a euphemism that's code for "why bother?" -- that we can't create a fairer tax code. But it's unacceptable that we can't be bothered to fight for $250 for every underpaid teacher in this country.

As people file their taxes already, it's too late to make changes to this year's code. But we shouldn't accept the defeatism and the lackluster attitude of the President's latest State of the Union address.

If we want to protect those who are not as wealthy or as powerful as the interests controlling Washington, we can't sit on our hands. Public education, once a foundational temple of our democracy, has become a for-profit marketplace for politicians of both parties. If they think that our teachers can afford another $250, perhaps they should look into their own fundraiser-lined pockets for a little change.