Steve Volk, December 4, 2017
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“What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade”
Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,
how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
questions on how not to feel lost in the dark.
After lunch she distributed worksheets
that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s
voice. Then the class discussed falling asleep
without feeling you had forgotten to do something else—
something important—and how to believe
the house you wake in is your home. This prompted
Mrs. Nelson to draw a chalkboard diagram detailing
how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks,
and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts
are all you hear; also, that you have enough.
The English lesson was that I am
is a complete sentence.
And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation
look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,
and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person
add up to something.
Poor Mrs. Nelson, I thought as I contemplated the tax bill recently passed on near party-line votes in Congress (Senate and House versions remain to be reconciled as of this writing). Combing through the bill, looking for something to suggest that the future that was being created by the tax bill included all the Mrs. Nelsons of the country, I could find nothing to give me hope. Indeed, all indications are that quality public K-12 education has been consigned to the dust bin, and that higher education has become just so much road kill.
In a House bill filled with an abundance of shameful initiatives, the removal of one small benefit stood out for me as the embodiment of the Republican Congress’ disdain for teachers. First, here’s what teachers are currently allowed to deduct from their taxes, according to the IRS:
If you’re an eligible educator, you can deduct up to $250 ($500 if married filing jointly and both spouses are eligible educators, but not more than $250 each) of unreimbursed trade or business expenses. Qualified expenses are amounts you paid or incurred for participation in professional development courses, books, supplies, computer equipment (including related software and services), other equipment, and supplementary materials that you use in the classroom.
Let’s be clear: this is not a tax credit (where tax liabilities are reduced on a dollar for dollar basis), but a deduction. Most estimates suggest that it puts about $40 a year into teachers’ pockets. Does it matter? According to a 2013 estimate, teachers spend about $1.6 billion of their own money each year on school supplies, on average $945 per teacher. This matters because schools have long since stopped supplying things like paper towels, tissues, and cleaning products for classes, expecting teachers, parents or PTAs to cough up the items. Districts have also stopped buying books, software, and even chalk. Does it make a huge difference to the teacher’s family budget? Probably not a lot, and it is my guess that teachers being teachers, they will continue to provide for their students with or without the deduction. But yanking away the deduction speaks volumes about the low regard in which the Republican-passed tax bill holds teachers and education. Perhaps the tax writers in the House were just looking for something to make up for their doubling of the estate tax exemption (currently paid by the top 0.1% of tax-payers, some 2,200 individuals) which will cost the economy $151 billion over the next decade. Let them eat cake.
What does one say about a tax bill that eliminates a provision allowing low- and middle-income student debtors to deduct up to $2,500 in student-loan interest? At a moment when tuition at public and private colleges and universities is painfully high and growing? At a moment when total student loan debt stands at $1.3 trillion and more than two-thirds of college graduates must borrow to go to school? And what does it say about all this given that cutting the corporate tax rate from 35-20% will cost $1.5 trillion?
And are there words to adequately convey what it means to conjure up, let alone pass into law (on the House side) a measure that would treat the unpaid tuition of graduate students as income while giving millionaires a $1,650 child tax credit? (OK, let’s be fair: those earning minimum wage would see a whopping $75 credit which they can use for, um, wipes for their daughter’s kindergarten class.) Writing recently in the New York Times, Erin Rousseau, a grad student in health sciences at MIT, reports that she earns about $33,000 a year as a stipend for the 40-80 hours a week she works as a research and teaching assistant; she is also waived from paying tuition, which is about $50,000 a year for her program. This is not money that goes into her bank account, that she can use to pay her rent or medical expenses (of which she has many): it’s an expense that she is freed from paying. Under the House plan, with the waiver counted as income, she would have to pay an extra $10,000 in taxes each year, a burden that would likely drive her out of grad school. Well, at least the top 1% of tax payers, according to the Institute on Taxation on Economic Policy (ITEP), will get a tax break worth the same $50,000 that Erin will now be paying taxes on. That’s $50,000 that stays in their bank accounts to be used for whatever they need.
Look, I will be the first to admit that I’m not an economist and likely should stick to what I (perhaps) know the best, teaching, learning, and maybe even history. But taxes, who pays and who benefits, are more than numbers; they speak to our values, and the Republican tax bills in both houses of Congress record at deafening volume the disregard with which they hold public education in general and higher education, in particular. So, no. Now is not the time to remain silent in the face of a massive assault on the educational foundation that we, as teachers, struggle to maintain, improve, and respect.
From Public Good to Private Consumable
A recent article in the Atlantic by Erika Christakis provides ample details of the attack on public education that has been building for years and now threatens to be frozen in legislative concrete. George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, called the National Education Association, the largest teacher’s union in the United States, a “terrorist organization” in 2004. President Obama criticized the nation’s schools for falling behind in the world. And Trump used his inaugural address to charge that (“beautiful”) students had been “deprived of all knowledge” by our nation’s schools. (He sought to rectify that by proposing to cut $9 billion from the education sector). His Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, referred to public schools as a “dead end” and a “mundane malaise” for too many kids.
Two arguments stand out in Christakis’ article: the consolidation of the belief that the public education sector, which serves 90% of the 51 million students in pre-K through 12th grade, has been failing students for decades, and the notion that education is not a public good but rather “private consumable.” In terms of the first, she notes that:
Since the early 1970s, when the Department of Education began collecting long-term data, average reading and math scores for 9- and 13-year-olds have risen significantly. These gains have come even as the student body of American public schools has expanded to include students with ever greater challenges. For the first time in recent memory, a majority of U.S. public-school students come from low-income households [and, I would point out, public schools are now majority minority]. The student body includes a larger proportion than ever of students who are still learning to speak English. And it includes many students with disabilities who would have been shut out of public school before passage of the… Individuals With Disabilities Education Act…
As for the second point, Christakis observes that “Americans have in recent decades come to talk about education less as a public good, like a strong military or a noncorrupt judiciary, than as a private consumable… “[T]he current discussion,” she continues, “has ignored public schools’ victories, while also detracting from their civic role. Our public-education system is about much more than personal achievement; it is about preparing people to work together to advance not just themselves but society. Unfortunately, the current debate’s focus on individual rights and choices has distracted many politicians and policy makers from a key stakeholder: our nation as a whole.”
The tax bill steaming towards reconciliation strengthens the war on public education in ways both petty and monumental, but all of which suggest the low regard that congressional Republicans hold for the public K-12 system and higher education in general. Senator Ted Cruz’s late-night amendment to the Senate tax bill, a measure that would allow “529’s,” special tax-free college savings account, to be used to shield income to pay up to $10,000 a year in tuition for private and religious K-12 schools, falls in the first category. The Cruz amendment, a provision that would largely benefit wealthier families who can already afford private schools, was welcomed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who called the plan, “a good step forward,” in that it reflected “that education should be an investment in individual students, not systems.”
Further, in a move whose only logical intent seemed to be the destabilization of public school financing, the tax bill would prevent school districts from using tax-free “advance refund bonds” to refinance school bond debt, a move that will raise costs for local school districts.
Starving Public Education
Both House and Senate versions of the bill curtail the federal deduction for state and local taxes, a measure which likely will have the most severe and destabilizing impact on all public education, from pre-K through university. This is the most poisonous of all the tax bill’s provisions because public educational institutions receive nearly all their income from state and local tax revenues, which individuals will no longer be able to deduct from their individual tax bills. If the measure seems modest, consider how it works. Eliminating the deduction for state and local taxes raises an individual’s effective tax rate, particularly in high-tax states (which just so happen to be Democratic states, like California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, etc.). How likely do you think legislators will be to raise taxes again to make up for this shortfall in education dollars – particularly when states will also have to shoulder a larger portion of health care costs that the Federal government seems intent on sloughing off? Of course, low-tax states (e.g. Alabama or Mississippi or Arizona) don’t provide a lot of funding for their educational systems to begin with.
A study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities focuses on what has been a long-term trend in states cutting back on educational funding, particularly at the higher education level. In the 2015-2016 school year, 46 states — all except Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming — were spending less per student in the 2015-16 school year than they did before the recession. In response, at the higher education level, public colleges and universities across the country have increased tuition to compensate for declining state funding and rising costs. Annual published tuition at four-year public colleges has risen by 33% since the 2007-08 school year, by 90% in Arizona, and by more than 60% in six other states, including California. And at the local level: it’s back to Mrs. Nelson buying supplies for her class.
What can we expect in the future, given the tax bill and experience from the past? According to the CBPP, states will rely disproportionately on cutting budgets rather than raising taxes or fees in order to deal with the budgetary shortfalls to come; that’s what they did in the last recession. And budgets were being slashed between 2008-09 and 2013-14 at a time when enrollments increased in public higher education (by nearly 900,000 full-time-equivalent students) and in public K-12 schools (by 803,000 students). When you add to this state and local expenses for a prison population that tops out at nearly 1.6 million and is expected to grow under a “lock-’em-up” Attorney General, and exploding health care costs as the ACA is driven into the ground, it is not a stretch to imagine a consolidation of the shift towards a privatized educational system that serves only those who can afford it.
Higher Education? Don’t Count on It
While the pressure on state and local budgets will be the biggest driver moving education costs from the public sector to private individuals, other elements in the tax bill hone in with laser-like precision on the education sector. Besides the elimination of the provision that allows low- and middle-income student debtors to deduct up to $2,500 in student-loan interest each year, mentioned earlier, the new bill would:
- eliminate the tax-free status of employer tuition reimbursements, up to $5,250 a year;
- repeal the Lifetime Learning Credit, available for low- and middle-income families (which offsets 20% of the first $10,000 of qualified education expenses, reducing a tax bill by as much as $2,000) and which typically allows workers to deduct the cost of part-time classes; and
- axe the Hope Scholarship Tax Credit (which allows taxpayers a credit of up to $2,500 per student, per year, if they paid qualified tuition and related expenses for the first four years of post-secondary education).
And then there’s the endowment tax, a levy on endowments over a certain amount of endowment per student (the precise amount has been batted around between the House and the Senate). This proposal even offered a stunning midnight amendment that would have exempted just one college, Hillsdale, a tiny conservative Christian college in Michigan, from paying the new tax. Hillsdale has been a pet project of the DeVos family. Ultimately, this morsel proved to be too much for four Republican Senators (just four) to swallow. Now, it seems reasonable to me to debate the tax status of endowments that, at institutions like Harvard ($36 billion) or the University of Texas system ($25 billion), have grown to gargantuan proportions and are often used to gobble up local properties while driving out low-income renters from Cambridge, New Haven, and Harlem. But to tax large educational endowments as a means of paying for corporate tax cuts and billionaire pass-throughs is an act of exceptionally distorted values, and one that, cynically, will bolster the chances that the wealthy who benefit from the tax bill will continue to send their children to those same universities.
Education as a Partisan Food Fight
Arguments can be made to promote the theory that the corporate tax rate is too high in this country, that the tax structure is too unwieldy, complex, and counterproductive. These can be reasonable arguments (although one would also have to note that annual corporate profits, both gross and net, are near historic levels). What doesn’t seem sustainable, according to the most economists, is that the tax bill rocketing through Congress with nary a hearing, let alone the time to decipher the illegible notes handwritten into the bill at the last minute, will produce a well-funded, publicly supported, high quality educational system. In fact, it seems perversely designed to do just the opposite: to dismantle the public K-12 system, to make it harder to finance both public and private higher education, to discourage low- and middle-income students from completing college without absorbing enormous debt, and to dissuade workers from going back to school for further training.
It’s fair to ask why are the Republicans pushing a measure that is so hostile to higher education. Perhaps it’s because a majority of Republicans, according to a recent Pew Research Center report say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country. Perhaps it’s because liberal arts colleges and elite universities have become favored punching bags for conservative writers, bloggers, and journalists. Perhaps, as Nate Silver argued, “education, not income, predicted who would vote for Trump,” and Republicans sense that college-educated voter aren’t their strongest supporters. Or perhaps, as David A. Graham recently argued in the Atlantic, Trump has decided to simply ignor colleges while offering blue-collar workers a return to the good-paying, non-degree required jobs that they held in the 1950s.
I don’t know which is most accurate, or perhaps all are. What I do know is that the tax bill racing to Trump’s desk will make educational achievement at all levels more difficult for the great majority of the population while eroding a central pillar of civic life in the United States. In the end, it remains up to those of us who care about creating an equitable, inclusive, and high-quality educational system to step up to the challenge.