(The Hill) — Back-to-school shopping is expected to break sales records as educators face another year of paying for their own classroom supplies out of pocket.
From fundraisers to a “student supply fee,” teachers and schools are finding ways to try to cover the cost of classroom supplies as more than 90 percent of educators use their own money for it, according to a survey from the National Education Association.
While back-to-school spending is expected to hit a record high of $41.5 billion, beating the previous high of $37.1 billion in 2021, according to a survey from National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics, educators are often only given the bare necessities for their classrooms and students.
“It’s absurd that we are creating a situation where school teachers feel it’s necessary to dip into their own pocket, year after year, to provide for the students in their classroom,” Colin Sharkey, executive director of the Association of American Educators (AAE), told The Hill last week.
An analysis from My eLearning World showed teachers for the 2022-2023 school year spent an average of $820.14 on classroom supplies.
The educators, however, cannot deduct even half of that cost from their taxes.
For 20 years, teachers were only able to deduct $250 from their taxes for out-of-pocket classroom expenses. The IRS raised that number to $300 in 2022, saying, “The limit will rise in $50 increments in future years based on inflation adjustments.”
“So we effectively have federal taxes on the money that teachers are spending out of pocket for essentials for classrooms for public schools, and I think that that can be corrected in a bipartisan fashion,” Sharkey said.
AAE has repeatedly called for the tax code to be upgraded to allow each teacher to deduct $1,000 on their taxes for their classroom supplies, and up to $400 to go towards home internet expenses.
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“The foresight to peg the popular deduction to inflation is to be applauded but is long overdue to increase the amount to $1,000 to match educator expenses and add the cost of broadband access, a necessity for educators,” Sharkey said back in 2022 after the IRS announcement.
There are some school districts that will help out, with Jessica Saum, a special education teacher in Arkansas, saying she gets a $500 stipend from her school for classroom supplies plus money from a “student supply fee.”
But at another district in the past, Saum had to rely on donations and fundraisers in order to get her supplies.
“The classroom that I was stepping into didn’t have any books for students, and so it was an opportunity for me to start looking for some. I had friends donate some books from their children’s libraries, even looking at secondhand stores for books to stock the shelves,” said Saum. “And then I actually, that year, I did a DonorsChoose project and I was able to have that fully funded and was able to stock my classroom library through donations.”
Meanwhile, parents and students are spending more, too.
Parents with children in K-12 are spending a record $890.07 on back-to-school shopping this year, according to the NRF report. College students and families are also hitting a new high of $1,366.95.
Katherine Cullen, vice president of industry and consumer insights at NRF, pointed out that “not all categories are experiencing the same level of inflation.”
“So rather than pulling back on spending, what we’re seeing is consumers are changing the way they shop,” Cullen said.
“So they’re focusing more on sales and deals; they’re starting earlier to give themselves more time to shop. And they are maybe a little less brand specific or brand loyal than they might have been in the past so maybe a little more willing to shop at a discount store or more willing to trade down to a store or off-brand product,” she added.
NRF found the increase in spending is “primarily driven” by technology, with 69 percent of shoppers saying they are expecting to buy electronics in their back-to-school shopping. The top technologies purchased during this season are laptops at 51 percent, tablets at 36 percent and calculators at 29 percent, it said.
Teachers are used to going to specific stores for their supplies, as many retailers offer sales specifically for them.
While it’s commonplace for teachers to ask for donations or shop at discounted stores, Sharkey said educators should talk to their school district leaders about classroom supplies as those in charge may be out of date for what is truly needed.
“It’s also possible the district or who makes the purchasing decisions assumes that the school classroom has what it needs and would be surprised to find that when they talk to the classroom teachers, they feel they need things that aren’t provided or they’re not using things that the school thinks are necessary that they’re spending money on,” he said.