Minnesota Teachers Get a Tax Credit. What’s Wrong With That?

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton signed the “Federal Tax Conformity” bill Saturday.  The bill adopts some of the recent changes to federal tax law to the tax laws of Minnesota.  There’s a long list.  Take a look.

I suppose there is reason to support some of these changes.  We still seem to believe tax cuts will help the economy flourish when in fact we have funding problems and a systematically flawed tax code overall.  Bills like this do nothing to address that problem.

Teacher with School SuppliesInstead they are largely publicity stunts catering to different economic interests.  Let’s take the tax break for teachers as an example.

In Minnesota more than 60,000 teachers will be eligible for a tax deduction for the supplies they buy for the classroom.  It sounds like a great idea, right?  But there are several problems here.

First, why are teachers buying school supplies in the first place?  Of course we know the answer to that question.  Since the 1980s the country has turned against the public sector.  Remember, government isn’t the solution, it is the problem.  Schools were forced to do more with less and faced drastic cuts.

Things only got worse for schools following the Great Recession when politicians — and, unfortunately, a misinformed public — demanded more cuts.

Annual preparations for the school year changed dramatically and quickly.  Schools send students home with lists of supplies ranging from copier paper to toilet paper that they are expected to bring back to the school.  Teachers pick up the slack, supplying such basics as books, art materials, and in some cases even furniture for classrooms.  This all happens while school districts cut staff, freeze salaries, and increase class sizes.

So what’s wrong with the tax credit?

First, it doesn’t even come close to reimbursing teachers for the extra expense.  Nearly all teachers in public schools spent an average of $485 on classroom supplies in 2012.  Many spent much more.  The tax credit is a “deduction in adjusted gross income of up to $250 for classroom expenses paid by a K-12 grade educator.”  That means the reduce their overall adjusted taxable income by $250.  Keep the math simple.  If a teacher’s tax rate is 20%, he or she can expect a $50 reimbursement on this credit.  Hardly a win.  Certainly not fair.

How we got to this point says a lot about our national priorities.  It is another example of balancing budgets on the backs of workers, in this case essentially imposing a surcharge on teachers.  Even if there were a dollar-for-dollar reimbursement of expenses paid, teachers still incur the cost of acquiring and delivering the supplies.  All these gimmicks, meant as incentives for efficiency and competitiveness, come with costs.  Classrooms should not be held to a commercial model.  But that is exactly what is expected.

Education is not a place to cut corners.  Unfortunately it is what we do.  It is the status quo.  And if we’re not careful, it will only get worse.  Last week Kansas governor Sam Brownback — a Republican — proposes cutting another $127 million from that state’s education budget.  What will families and teachers be expected to pay then?

Which brings up one last point.  Teachers and families cover the funding cuts, not people with no children in school.  If you have no children in school — and presumably if you are not a teacher — what interest do you have in school?  Those who stand to benefit will adapt and change, like a business, right?

This is consistent with our nation’s lost sense of community.  We have instilled commercial values in nearly every aspect of American life.  Plus we’re told self-interest benefits everyone.  It is hard to see how these changes in perspective benefit us, individually and as a whole, when all around us so much is in decline.

Education — like roads, utilities, safe food and water — is essential to a strong society and economy.  As a matter of policy, we are underfunding education and expecting only some of us to make that work.  That isn’t fair.  It isn’t good policy.

Politicians won’t increase the taxes needed to properly fund public services like education.  Sadly, in many cases they can’t.  Poorly informed and misled voters won’t let politicians act in the best interest of the public.  In that environment, a $250 credit on adjusted gross income looks like a win, and maybe it is insofar as it is all we can get.  However, I think it points to a bigger problem, which is the unwillingness to support government and the good it can do for the future.  We are not addressing that problem.


One thought on “Minnesota Teachers Get a Tax Credit. What’s Wrong With That?

  1. Gary Farland

    When I was Director of Finance at the MN Dept of Education, I raised the question of why the districts were not spending more on classroom supplies. I never got much of an answer, but I suspect that the teachers bargained away all the money for salaries and then felt guilty that the district didn’t have anything left for supplies.


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