PolitiFact: Feinstein overstates teacher deduction’s impact


As congressional Republicans tout the benefits of their party’s tax proposal, Democratic lawmakers are trying to pick the bill apart, provision by provision.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., took aim at one specific element of the bill that is of interest to many K-12 teachers. The tax bill House Republicans unveiled would have scrapped a provision in the tax code that allows teachers to deduct some unreimbursed classroom spending up to $250.

The California Democrat has a point in her tweet, though we found two elements of it that are worthy of some caution.

The $1.6 billion figure stems from a study by the National School Supply and Equipment Association. The study found that “on average, teachers reported spending about $149 of their own money on school supplies, $198 on instructional materials, and $138 on other classroom materials for a total of $485 in the 2012-2013 school year.”

Note the time frame: The study goes back five years.

To be fair, there has been at least one more recent survey along these lines, from 2016 by a group called AdoptAClassroom.org. This study offers a higher figure for out-of-pocket classroom spending by teachers — $600 a year.

But if Feinstein had used the $600 figure, she would have worsened the second, and more significant, problem with her tweet.

Not all of the money spent by teachers is tax-deductible.

As we noted above, the limit for deducting unreimbursed classroom expenditures is $250. So of that $485 spent out-of-pocket by the average teacher, $235 would not be deductible. (Teachers who itemize also can deduct more than that, but only if the out-of-pocket amounts are especially large, meaning few would qualify to do so.)

If you adjust the calculation to take that into account, the approximate value of the lost deduction would be $825 million, not the $1.6 billion Feinstein cited in her tweet.

Feinstein’s office said it sent out a subsequent tweet that provided some more specificity. That tweet said, “The average teacher spends $500 per year on school supplies. Republican plan says they can’t deduct even $250 from their tax bill. Terrible!”

Finally, we should note that the $825 million figure is a maximum amount that could theoretically be deducted. In reality, not every teacher who qualifies for this deduction takes advantage of it.

The Treasury Department estimates that in tax year 2016, the classroom expense deduction reduced federal tax revenue by $210 million. That makes Feinstein’s $1.6 billion figure even more overstated.

Our ruling

Feinstein has a point that the GOP plan would get rid of the existing deduction for out-of-pocket classroom expenses for teachers. But the tweet overstates the value of the deduction in two ways — first, because only a portion of that amount can actually be deducted under the law, and second, because not all teachers use the deduction.

We rate the statement Half True.



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