The GOP Tax Plan Is a Declaration of War on Learning

Jeff Bryant

“Top-down class warfare” is what economist Paul Krugman calls the new Republican tax plans being drawn up in Congress, because both plans in the House and Senate propose “huge tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy” and eliminate scores of “credits and exemptions that mainly benefit the middle class.” The heaviest casualties are likely to be on the public education front.

As Krugman explains, Republicans intend to knock off many current tax deductions for higher education expenses, but the extent of the carnage in the plans will extinguish learning opportunities at every age and stage of young people’s lives.

What the Republicans propose in their tax plans is not just a raid on education-related budget items for the sake of fiscal efficiency; their plans are part of a strategic offensive against the very idea that all children and youth have a right to a free and high-quality education.

The Assault Starts Early

The assault Republicans are coordinating starts very early in children’s lives.

Federal assistance for child care, once brandished as a priority of the Trump administration, is not on the agenda. As Think Progress reports, the plan in the House rolls back some “existing child care benefits in the tax code” and fails to expand a child care tax credit.

Even though the plans are still being negotiated, there’s little doubt “a lot of families” will see their taxes increased if the Republicans become law, says Kevin Drum at Mother Jones. Those increased taxes mean less money for parents to provide their children with academic and physical education opportunities outside school, including music lessons, sports, and summer camp.

The Republican tax plans also foretell funding crises down the road for federal programs that support children and families.

As economists at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities explain, these schemes are part of a “two-step fiscal agenda” to cut taxes for the rich to drive up the deficit and then justify deeper funding cuts to programs in the future.

Among the “eventual victims” CBPP predicts are programs for health, tuition, and education, particularly the Head Start program providing learning opportunities for low-income four- and five-year olds. Funding already passed by Republicans provides “little or no increase” for Head Start, so as expenses increase, the lack of new tax revenues available to Head Start will necessitate further cuts and fewer children served.

K-12 Carnage

Republican tax plans will have the “biggest direct impact” on local schools through their repeal of deductions taxpayers can claim on state and local taxes (known as SALT), according to Education Week. “The House version, would allow a tax deduction for up to $10,000 of local property taxes but eliminate deductions for state and local income and sales taxes from federal tax returns. While the Senate bill repeals both property tax and income and sales tax deductions.”

Ending the SALT deduction would immediately close a spigot of federal dollars to local coffers that pay for schools, I report. But an even worse, repealing the deduction will eventually increase voter pushback against any new local tax increases for schools and put pressure on local governments to cut taxes that are vital to children’s education.

Analysts at the National Education Association calculate that repealing the SALT deduction may “put nearly 250,000 education jobs at risk.” Job cuts of this magnitude will result in fewer services for special needs kids and those who don’t speak English well, larger class sizes with less individual attention to students, and shuttered libraries, athletic programs, and courses in arts and world languages.

Another egregious detail in the House plan is to end the $250 tax deduction teachers and other educators get for spending their personal money on classroom supplies, Education Week reports.

Since 2002, educators have been able to claim the deduction even when they don’t make enough money to itemize their tax returns. Over 3.7 million tax returns claimed this deduction in the previous year available.

As I report, the $250 deduction doesn’t even begin to compensate what educators fork out from their own pockets for their kids. The most recent survey found teachers spend nearly $500 on average, and 1 in 10 spends $1,000 or more. Now they won’t even get the $250 subtraction, if the House Republicans have their way.

The original Senate bill included a rollback of the deduction too, but GOP Senators did an about-face and instead propose to double the deduction to $500, Education Week reports. The EdWeek reporter suspects the change may be an attempt to woo the support of Maine Senator Susan Collins who “helped introduce the $250 educator deduction into the tax code.”

Openings for Privatizers

In addition to the harm done to public schools and educators by eliminating deductions and rolling back revenues, both Republican plans offer new initiatives to redirect public tax dollars to privately operated education providers.

The House plan would allow parents to extend the tax advantages they get from 529 college-savings plans to use up to $10,000 annually for tuition in private K-12 schools. As The New York Times reports, the 529 extension will cost the federal government $600 million in revenue in 2018-19 and save rich folks $30,000 per child if they make large deposits in these tax-free accounts when their children are born.

Rather than providing a way for low-income parents to send their kids to private schools, the 529 extension is more of a coupon program for parents who can already afford the tuition.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who adamantly promotes private options like charter schools and voucher programs, called this proposal “a good step forward,” according to The Washington Post, and the school choice advocacy group she co-founded and ran, the American Federation for Children, “praised the idea.”

Two more proposals that could get slipped into the Senate tax bill, Education Week reports, would redirect more tax dollars to private schools, including religion based schools.

One proposal establishes a charitable deduction “for certain qualified tuition and related expenses relating to qualified religious instruction.”

The other proposal “would add a tax credit for corporate and individual contributions to state non-profit organizations” that provide school vouchers to help low-income to middle class families with K-12 children send their kids to private schools.

These tax credit programs  have proven to be yet another way to benefit wealthier folks by diverting funds from public schools that need the resources to hire teachers and fund programs.

Higher Ed Heist

The Republican assault on learning opportunities doesn’t stop after students complete high school and attempt to pursue higher education.

As Krugman explains in his Times op-ed, if the Republicans have their way, students taking out loans to help pay college tuition would no longer be able to deduct the interest payments on those loans. Student who get help from an employer to pay for tuition or other expenses, would have the contribution considered taxable income in the House bill. Students who get free or reduced tuition because their parents are university employees will also have to report that break as taxable income. And graduate students who have tuition waived as part of their degree programs would have to report that as taxable income.

The tax increase for graduate students is a full body blow to those who we are expecting to be the nation’s future leaders, entrepreneurs, teachers, and artists. If this measure passes, according to a report from NPR, the 145,000 grad students who received a tuition reduction in the most recent year available are looking at tax increases of as much as 300 to 400 percent.

The House tax plan will make these students’ education unaffordable.

A War to What Ends?

“These proposals would undermine funding for our public schools, colleges and universities,” declare 43 education organizations in a letter of opposition to the tax bills currently being considered in Congress.

“What makes these tax proposals even more problematic,” the letter continues, “is that, at the same time Congress is considering this reckless legislation, it is also negotiating a spending bill that will likely require cuts in the same programs the tax bill will harm.”

The proposed changes, the letter argues, “would undermine funding for education across the education continuum.”

Opposing the specific measures in these tax plans is important, but it’s essential to call out the intentions behind them.

As Eduardo Porter writes for The New York Times, the goal of the Republican tax plan has very little to do with sound economics. It’s about “transforming America.”

Based on how the Republicans treat education in their tax plans, the transformation they want would make the nation collectively dumber and much more dependent on profit-making businesses for scarcer services with far fewer opportunities for citizens to better themselves through education.

We must reject that future.

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