While Public Education is Being Attacked: An American Federation of Teachers Petition Focuses on Maintaining a Minor Tax Break

Recently, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten sent a letter in which she justifiably criticizes the Republican tax plan for its giveaways to the rich.  She calls for its defeat because it would eliminate a tax break that saves K-12 educators around $65 a year.

Many educators who want to do a proper job have to pay for basic classroom supplies out of their own pocket. A 2013 survey cited by Weingarten found that public school educators spend on average $945 annually for these expenses.

Some even spend their own money to provide poor students with basic needs, including food for those who arrive at school hungry.   Teachers must dig into their own pockets because our wealthy society fails to adequately provide for the education and well-being of its children.  No child should arrive at school hungry, and teachers should not have to pay from their personal funds for needed school supplies that can include pencils, crayons and books.

The tax break that Weingarten defends allows educators to deduct $250 per year for out of pocket purchases of school supplies. She asks people to sign a petition that urges Congress to reject any tax plan that eliminates this deduction. (1)

The government during the Bush regime changed the tax law to provide for this minor $250 deduction. It does not provide for a dollar for dollar reduction in one’s taxes, but just reduces one’s taxable income.

For most eligible educators, the tax savings from this inadequate deduction will come to less than $65/year. (2) To be eligible, one must work at least 900 hours during a school year.  The resulting tax savings is almost a whopping 8 cents an hour, or less than 7% of the $945 one personally pays for school supplies a year.

Public schools’ faculty and their unions are facing numerous assaults in addition to inadequate government funding. They include attacks on tenure rights and the exploitation of low paid, job-insecure contingent faculty in higher education. Much   government education funding is being used to pay for charter schools not accountable to the public, some of which operate as for-profit businesses. Corporate agendas are being pushed to have schools focus on training students with specific skills demanded by businesses while reducing or eliminating courses that help students to become well-rounded, culturally enriched and socially engaged citizens.

We should, of course, welcome union opposition to the Republican tax plan.  However, should union leaders spend even a minute focusing on a minor tax savings?

Devoting effort to preserve this tiny break makes the AFT appear to be just another special interest group similar to a corporation fighting to maintain a tax break for its owners.

Instead, shouldn’t the AFT and all other unions be mobilizing their members to demand significantly higher taxes on the income, and especially the wealth, of the rich to properly fund social needs that include public education? Shouldn’t they oppose the Republican tax bill for moving so disastrously in the opposite direction?



1) Weingarten also bemoans the proposed elimination of other tax deductions including one for union dues. Many educators are unable to deduct their dues and save on their taxes because they don’t itemize their deductions.

If they do itemize their deductions, they may still not be able to deduct union dues because they don’t spend more than 2% of their income on dues and job expenses (including those for more than $250,) for tax preparation and on investment expenses.

If they can deduct these items, then, as before the $250 deduction was enacted, they could deduct it and all other out of pocket expenditures for supplies.

3) Since the $250 is a deduction, the tax savings is highest for those with the highest taxable income meaning it’s a regressive tax break.

Rick Baum teaches Political Science at City College of San Francisco. He is a member of AFT 2121.

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Rick Baum teaches Political Science at City College of San Francisco. He is a member of AFT 2121.

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