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We have all been affected by the teachers in our lives.  They literally influence every life skill.  So how do we ideally and fundamentally acknowledge and support the best foundational experience for those who take our places in the nation’s classrooms? We should do so through financial as well as demonstrative support for the educational enterprise.  But the reality falls far short of that ideal.  Current opinion polls report that teaching remains one of our most undervalued professions – both financially and in terms of public esteem.  Trump administration policies have served only to reinforce this narrative of distain and neglect with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos actively shifting financial resources away from traditional public education and Donald Trump, Jr. blasting public education as a failed system.

Nevertheless, annually nationally we formally attempt to shore up missing appreciation by taking a collective moment to salute these professionals. Teacher Appreciation Week, 2019 version, has now come and gone. It has been observed in some form since 1944.  Its purpose?  To ensure that teachers are reminded that students value their work.  Various sites suggested appropriate ways of conveying that message:  a greeting card, a good book, a coffee mug, a floral bouquet, emails and notes from students who fondly recall their student days!  Restaurants and retailers also weighed in — offering a variety of deals on items from food to merchandise.

One hopes that many of our teachers enjoyed this attention and that they were feted by students and their parents and took advantage of the various perks offered by local merchants.

But what now?  Afterglow can’t mask the harsh professional realities faced by far too many educators. Public education remains underfunded in far too many states.  In part, this results from cuts in funding inflicted upon public education in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008. As the recession deepened, employment rolls contracted, and property tax rolls shrank in the wake of the collapsing housing market. Tax revenues correspondingly diminished.  Public sector spending rapidly declined taking education spending with it.  To some extent and as the national economy has recovered, spending for public education has gradually increased. In some states, however, spending levels have yet to reach pre-2008 levels.

Teachers have been particularly adversely affected by these financial realities.  Salaries have stagnated, failing to keep pace with steadily increasing costs of living.  In many states, their annual incomes are less than the average salary nationally.  Low salaries generally have caused far too many of them to seek additional employment simply to make ends meet.  Low pay has had an additional secondary effect; many teachers, especially in metropolitan areas, have found themselves priced out of the local housing market forcing compromises on the quality of housing or geographic proximity to employment or both. These realities are, of course, demoralizing and can (and does) precipitate premature departure from low-paying into higher-paying states or –- even worse — from the teaching ranks entirely.

Clearly, in many instances, additional public investment through increased spending for public education is necessary.  Such increases must include enhanced teacher salaries in order to build and retain an effective instructional corp.  Indeed, better salaries are essential if the outflow of experienced teachers is to be staunched and the burden of secondary, unrelated, and distracting employment eliminated.

In either case, students are deprived of intangible enhanced effectiveness and perspective gained only through classroom experience.

To be sure, many states have moved to improve conditions of employment for those in the classroom largely through increased salaries.  Recently, this ameliorative action has most often resulted from pressure brought by striking teachers who have refused to continue to work for insultingly low salaries under conditions that they find increasingly intolerable.  And that is a positive development.  It remains a fact, however, that the financial future of public education is murky.  Recent changes in the federal income tax system contribute to this uncertainty. 

Historically, state and local governments in combination provide approximately 90% of the revenue expended to support public education. Two important federal tax changes may undermine ongoing state and local capacity to sustain that level of expenditure.  First, the itemized deduction for state and local taxes, previously unlimited, has been capped at $10,000 from 2018 to 2025. High-tax states may encounter taxpayer resistance as their combined state and local tax bill exceeds the allowable deduction. Declining tax revenues could once again undermine the latest efforts to support education as states may wish. 

A second change affects taxpayers utilizing 529 plans — tax-sheltered accounts intended to offset post-secondary educational expenses. Taxpayers are unable to deduct amounts contributed to these accounts for federal tax purposes, but many states permit a deduction for state tax purpose.  Thereafter, taxpayers would not be taxed on increases in the value of monies placed in these accounts before withdrawal.  Further, assets used to pay college expenses would not be taxed at all.  The 2017 Act made an important change here.  After the change, parents can also use 529 plans to pay tuition at private elementary and secondary schools.  As a result, private school families could use 529 plans to avoid state taxes for what would otherwise be a personal expense. The formula would be simple:  contribute to the 529 plan, take the deduction for state income purposes, and then use account proceeds to pay private school tuition. Again, corresponding taxpayer resistance to state and local (nondeductible!) tax increases could ensue in the wake of this change also.

In fairness, I should also note that in that same bill Congress extended the deduction available to all k-12 teachers (no itemization required) for up to $250 ($500 for married taxpayers filing jointly) of qualified expenses.  Qualified expenses include supplementary classroom materials. This is certainly personal tax relief however limited, for teachers who feel constrained to dip into personal resources to close the gap between deemed necessary resources and support provided by the respective school districts. 

But can we – should we – in good conscience take solace from the fact that already underpaid teachers are taxing themselves to offset what should be a communal expense?

In short, Teacher Appreciation Week must now – more than ever – be about more than a Starbucks gift card.  Who can see the bumper sticker – “If you can read this, thank a teacher!” — without being reminded of the tremendous debt owed to these professionals?  This is a debt that must be paid forward and that can only be done by insuring that these dedicated educators receive the financial and intangible support that they need and deserve to adequately train the next generation of young learners. Would that this commitment would begin at the very top with the President and the members of his administration utilizing their authority and resources to completely support public education.  There is no reason to expect this to happen, however. Of necessity then – perhaps because of the absence of that support – we must double-down, individually recommit to full-throated support of public education and insisting from the ground up that our elected representatives take the financial steps necessary to achieve that end.  This is a crucial effort. Our children deserve nothing less.

Mildred Wigfall Robinson, Henry L. and Grace Doherty Charitable Foundation Professor of Law. Public Voices Fellow, OpEd Project University of Virginia 2018-2019

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