Our Opinion: Congress must restore teacher tax deduction

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Pop quiz: When teachers dig into threadbare pockets and purses to buy essential supplies for cash-starved classrooms, should the federal government demand a cut of what they spend?

A.) No, teachers shouldn’t have to buy supplies at all. School districts ought to be equipping educators with the tools they need.

B.) No, the U.S. Department of Education should be supplementing local budgets to provide classroom supplies.

C.) No, it’s an unfortunate reality that teachers have to pitch in. Taxing these purchases just adds insult to injury.

D.) Sure, why not?

If you answered A, B or C, congratulations — you passed. Extra credit for those who picked A and B.

If you chose D, you’re probably a member of Congress. And you need to stay after class for some remedial math lessons.

The current House version of a bill to overhaul the federal tax code eliminates the educator expense deduction, a popular, uncontroversial line item that allows teachers to deduct the first $250 they spend on classroom supplies from their taxable income.

Many teachers spend considerably more than that — an Education Market Association study pegged the average at $500 in 2015 and estimated that a tenth of all teachers shell out $1,000 or more — but the tax cut was at least an attempt to offset that burden.

Republicans on Capitol Hill liked it so much they voted to make the temporary deduction permanent as part of the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015.

Yet when given the opportunity to pare down the laundry list of tax deductions, some congressional bean counters zeroed in on the professionals we entrust with the responsibility of educating the next generation of Americans instead of, say, Native American whaling ship captains, who are eligible for a $10,000 tax break.

Lobbyists and campaign contributors have managed to secure dozens of wacky carve-outs for obscure special interests, and then there are the well-publicized creative interpretations of the business expense deduction that have allowed tax breaks for junkyard owners who feed stray cats, exotic dancers who buy breast implants and bodybuilders who slather on so much body oil it’s worth listing on a tax return.

The American tax code is a thicket of complication and corruption that drones on for 2,600 pages. Simplifying it is a long overdue step. Most Americans who aren’t accountants, lawyers or lobbyists agree.

President Donald Trump wanted a plan with just three tax brackets, down from the current seven. The House’s working draft has four. In order to place many Americans in lower brackets and reduce their tax rate without sending revenue collection into a death spiral, Congress has to claw back at least some of the deductions.

That creates winners and losers by necessity, as Washington has neither the gumption to take all tax breaks off the table nor the political will to consider a flat tax, which would please libertarians and tea party conservatives and pretty much no one else.

Perfect needn’t be the enemy of good — just because tax policy won’t be as simple as we might like doesn’t mean it’s not worth molding the monster into a smaller, gentler beast.

Cutting tax rates may require some deductions to fade out. But Congress’ small and largely symbolic concession to teachers is a rotten place to start, prima facie evidence that priorities are out of whack.

If the educator expense deduction is not restored, teachers across the nation will feel the pinch when they stock up on classroom supplies. Pain will be keenly felt in Wilson County, where hundreds of teachers shell out for essentials and extras that improve students’ learning experience.

When Brewmasters launched its third annual Adopt-a-Classroom supply drive in September, the Wilson restaurant received 240 wish lists from local teachers. Requests ranged from the bare necessities like crayons, erasers, colored pencils and composition notebooks to the inspirational, like Ivy League pennants “to create a college-bound atmosphere.”

Teachers are often forced to rely the kindness of strangers through school supply drives and crowdfunding campaigns to fulfill their class wish lists. If benefactors don’t step up to the plate, many dig deep and buy the supplies themselves. A Congress that would punish them for that is not fit to govern.

We call on Republican Rep. George Holding and Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield to oppose the elimination of an important tax break that educators in their districts depend on in order to stock classroom shelves.

If our congressional leaders can’t find better ways to offset lost revenue than picking teachers’ pockets, it’s time voters send them home to bone up on basic arithmetic.