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DOE should repay teachers

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Schools across the country have come up short in providing supplies for the classroom, leaving to teachers the responsibility of filling the gap by purchasing everything from pencils to paper. Hawaii’s Department of Education should create a more efficient system to reimburse teachers’ purchases of classroom items, but state legislation assigning the state tax director to do so for as much of $500, though well-intended, would be inappropriate and susceptible to abuse.

Teachers already are able to deduct the amount spent on school supplies from their taxable income, but any further recognition would discourage correction of responsibility, essentially enabling DOE funding shortcomings to continue. Hawaii’s Legislature should reject a proposal to give educators up to $500 in tax credits for purchases of items that should be provided by the school system.

Congress has recognized the reality of teachers dipping into their pocketbooks to assure students a full education. Since 2006, the Internal Revenue Service and the Hawaii Tax Department, through their yearly tax returns, have allowed educators to deduct from their taxable amounts up to $250 spent for school books, supplies and other equipment including computer, software and services.

National surveys indicate that teachers spend out of their own pockets an average of close to $500 a year on classroom supplies. The Hawaii State Teachers Association survey of its own members found that 47 percent spend between $250 to $500 a year, and "quite a few" spend $1,000 or more.

"Teachers are always being pushed to be creative and innovative with the classroom lessons," HSTA President Wil Okabe told legislators last month, "but more often than not, they are expected to do it with limited funding from schools and their own pockets."

Of special concern, Okabe said, is that special education teachers will be denied for the first time in 10 years funds of $1,690 by the school system to purchase materials for classroom use. They will have to "dig deeper into their pockets and find more creative ways to get their lessons done," he told legislators.

Certainly, then, it behooves school principals to also dig deeper and more creatively to meet the needs of their teachers. They, and not a state tax employee, are better suited to determine whether an expenditure is appropriate as a classroom component and should be compensated by the state Department of Education. Indeed, Frederick D. Pablo, the state’s tax director, pointed out that the legislation does not specify that the items purchased by the teacher "actually be used for instructional purposes, nor that the supplies and materials conform with any curriculum standards set by the Department of Education."

That is precisely why the DOE, with its principals at the campus level, should be the agency to determine whether the acquisitions made by teachers be approved. If teachers are to be reimbursed for their purchases — and they should be, if the items are justifiably for class use — surely the school system should be responsible for its own budgeting over its own employees.

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