When Jason Offutt’s students enter his classroom for back-to-school night, they’re sorted into their houses.
Offutt has a replica sorting hat from the Harry Potter book and movie series, and has each child pick a tile out of the hat that tells each student which “house” he or she will be in for the rest of the year — Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw or Slytherin.
Banners hang above clusters of desks, and each student’s name tag sticks to the front of the desk donning the colors of each house.
These decorations, this experience, these are not things the school system pays for — Offutt buys them with his own money, and he’s not reimbursed for it. Teachers often spend hundreds, sometimes more than $1,000 of their own money on school supplies and instruction materials each year. In the past, teachers have been able to write off $250 of those materials on their taxes — a nice gesture, but one that rarely covers everything a teacher buys.
“We probably don’t have to buy all of this stuff,” Offutt said. “But if you want to give your students a memorable experience and have them look back on their time with fond memories, spending your own money is almost necessary.”
That tax deduction, however, is in danger of being cut as a result of the tax reform bill Congress is working to pass. The bill that the House of Representatives passed Nov. 16 repeals the $250 deduction from teachers, but the reform the Senate passed Dec. 2 actually doubles the amount that teachers can deduct from their taxes.
The two branches of Congress will have to iron out the differences in the respective bills in a conference committee in the coming weeks. The first conference meeting is scheduled for Wednesday.
“Would it be nice if they double it?” Offutt said. “Yeah, it would be great. I don’t think it would be enough to put someone into a new tax bracket, but I think it would be helpful to us.”
While the deduction doesn’t cover all of the expenses most teachers spend on school supplies, it does represent a measure of goodwill from the federal government.
Although the deduction doesn’t always make much of a difference in the refund a teacher might get, Karen Yoho, a fourth-grade teacher at Twin Ridge Elementary School, said the larger issue is the message the government is sending.
“It just seems like it’s another message from this administration that they don’t value public education,” Yoho said. “It shows that the government expects teachers to spend money and it’s not the responsibility of the government or taxpayers to properly fund public schools.”
Offutt, who has been with Frederick County Public Schools for more than 20 years, echoed Yoho’s sentiment, saying that putting the expectation on teachers puts new teachers in a tough spot.
“In what other profession do people expect you to spend your own money to provide for 25 kids who are not your birth child?” Offutt said. “And teachers who are just starting out, don’t make that much money. It’s really challenging for them. You’ll see a lot of teachers who kind of just have to go home and kind of craft things themselves for their classrooms to save money.
“A lot of the teachers I’ve spoken to, it’s not so much about the money from the deduction, but just the message that it’s kind of expected of us.”
A study done by Scholastic revealed that teachers spend an average of nearly $500 of their own money on instructional materials each year, and that number increases to roughly $675 if that teacher works in a high-poverty area.
Yoho has backed off on the amount of money she spends on classroom materials over the years. She currently shares her classroom space with another teacher, so she doesn’t need to spend as much money to meet her classroom’s needs. Due to a lack of storage compared with her classroom last year, however, Yoho spent about $120 on bookshelves so that she could have a classroom library for her students to grab a book when they want.
She estimates that she still spent a couple of hundred dollars on other supplies throughout the year, despite scaling back significantly.
Offutt, who teaches fifth grade at Glade Elementary School, couldn’t estimate how much money he spends each year, but knows he quickly goes over the maximum that he can write off. The Harry Potter-related supplies alone add up to the $250 he can write off.
On top of that, there’s a running tab of supplies he purchases throughout the year. Sometimes he’ll buy packages of cookies to use to teach kids about moon phases. Sometimes he has to buy new books to add to the classroom library.
In recent years, as the number of students whose families live at or below the poverty line in the Glade area has increased, Offutt has more frequently found himself having to buy basic school supplies for students who can’t afford them. He will sometimes visit dollar sections of Wal-Mart or Target just to buy notebooks and pencils for students.
“What are we supposed to do?” Offutt said. “They can’t learn without this stuff. They have to have it.”
Should the compromise between the House and Senate result in the permanent repeal of the deduction for teachers, it could be enough to deter younger teachers from spending any money to put into their classroom, which would ultimately hurt the students, Offutt said.
“You can have your classroom look like a laboratory and you can probably deliver the curriculum,” Offutt said. “And younger teachers might end up choosing to go that route just because they have to. But it would be difficult to engage your students on a daily basis.”