Fe­in­stein over­states ar­gu­ment

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - NEWS - Louis Ja­cob­son

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

U.S. Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein, D-Calif., took aim at one spe­cific el­e­ment of the bill that is of in­ter­est to many K-12 teach­ers.

“Teach­ers spend $1.6 BIL­LION per year on school sup­plies. The Repub­li­can tax bill ELIM­I­NATES their abil­ity to deduct those ex­penses,” Fe­in­stein tweeted last week.

She’s re­fer­ring to a pro­vi­sion in the tax code that al­lows teach­ers to deduct el­i­gi­ble, un­re­im­bursed class­room spend­ing up to $250.

The pro­vi­sion was ex­panded and made per­ma­nent in De­cem­ber 2015.

The tax bill un­veiled by House Repub­li­cans would have scrapped the de­duc­tion.

Fe­in­stein’s tweet was retweeted at least 26,000 times, and re­ceived at least 34,000 likes.

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

Data Fe­in­stein cited is old

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 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 per teacher. 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-of­pocket 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 they 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!”

For what it’s worth, that tweet sent about three hours later at­tracted only a frac­tion of the at­ten­tion the ear­lier tweet re­ceived — 4,600 retweets and 8,600 likes.

Is the de­duc­tion be­ing taken? 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, for what­ever


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 rat­ing

Fe­in­stein tweeted, “Teach­ers spend $1.6 BIL­LION per year on school sup­plies. The Repub­li­can tax bill ELIM­I­NATES their abil­ity to deduct those ex­penses.”

She 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.

Louis Ja­cob­son is a re­porter for PolitiFact.com. The Jour­nal Sen­tinel’s PolitiFact Wis­con­sin is part of the PolitiFact net­work.

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