More than 90% of teachers spend their own money on classroom supplies, according to the National Education Association.
In Colorado, lawmakers want to put an end to that practice.
If passed into law, House Bill 1208 would reimburse full-time, licensed public school teachers $1,000 each year to pay for school supplies, with a new refundable state income tax credit. The tax credit would run through Jan. 1, 2027.
The bill passed its first vote in the House Education Committee last week.
"Our teachers are incredibly important, some of the most important people who we have in our state, because they're educating the next generation," said bill sponsor Rep. Matt Soper, R-Delta. "They're the ones we need to hold up."
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers spent an average of $479 per year on classroom supplies, according to a U.S. Department of Education survey. In recent years, other estimates have put the average annual out-of-pocket costs at around $750, with 20% to 30% of teachers spending more than $1,000.
Under the bill, in addition to classroom supplies, teachers could use the $1,000 tax credit on field trips, professional development, supplemental educational materials and other items that "improve the quality of the educational services that they provide."
The legislature has attempted to create such a tax credit several times before, with at least five similar bills introduced since 2019. Those efforts all failed to make it to a full chamber vote.
Trying to avoid the fate of its predecessors, HB 1208 deviates from the failed bills in two key ways: more money and for fewer teachers.
While previous bills set the tax credit at $500 or $750, HB 1208 is the first to reach $1,000. More significantly, though, HB 1208 also limits the tax credit eligibility to full-time, licensed public school teachers. The previous bills included all K-12 teachers and paraprofessionals who work at least 900 hours per school year. Some of the bills even extended to counselors, principals and aides.
"From my research on why these bills failed constantly, it's because everyone keeps wanting to add their group to the boat," said bill sponsor Rep. Bob Marshall, D-Highlands Ranch. "This core group of licensed teachers is a group that, I think, everyone can agree should be in the boat."
While Marshall hopes limiting the scope of the bill will finally get it though the legislature, the decision lost the bill support among Republicans, who have been behind all of the previous legislative efforts to create the tax credit.
Despite HB 1208's bipartisan sponsorship, all Republican members of the House Education Committee voted "no" on Thursday. All Democrats voted "yes," earning the bill 7-4 approval.
Republican opponents said the bill was unfair for only applying to licensed teachers, saying it should apply to unlicensed teachers as well. They said unlicensed teachers commonly work in charter schools, rural areas and military communities.
"This bill values one group of teachers over another," said Rep. Rose Pugliese, R-Colorado Springs. "It doesn't matter whether they're licensed or not, they're going to be paying out-of-pocket regardless."
Rep. Don Wilson, R-Monument, tried to amend the bill to make the tax credit open to unlicensed teachers in addition to licensed teachers. Committee chair Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, rejected the amendment for going beyond the scope of the bill title.
Marshall defended the choice not to include unlicensed teachers, saying licensed teachers have to pay for their licensure and continuing education, and have "shown a commitment to the profession." Marshall also said if he includes unlicensed teachers, it would open the floodgates for the advocates who are pushing him to add other groups, such as counselors or private school teachers.
But the eligibility of the tax credit was not the only concern regarding the bill.
The Colorado Parent Teacher Association opposed HB 1208, saying it is not the right solution for the issue of underfunded schools in Colorado. Former state Sen. Evie Hudak of the Colorado PTA called the proposal "insulting," saying it is "only a band aid."
"A $1,000 tax credit won't make up for the thousands of dollars that teachers are underpaid annually," Hudak said. "The only solution to this issue is to adequately fund public education."
Marshall said the bill is not meant to address education underfunding, arguing that it is only supposed to fix the specific problem of teachers paying for supplies with their own money. He said he's heard of the issue for the last 50 years, and the fluctuating amount of education funding hasn't changed it.
Kevin Vick, vice president of the Colorado Education Association, agreed that the bill won't solve all funding problems, but said the organization supports it for the help it will provide.
Vick, a high school social studies teacher in Colorado Springs, said his wife is an art teacher who just started teaching at a new middle school this year. The school has no art budget, so his wife has had to fund all of the supplies herself all year, amounting to thousands of dollars, he said.
"We know just how much out-of-pocket money our educators spend on making sure their kids have the supplies necessary for high-quality learning," Vick said. "Knowing how dire the situation is, CEA will always support efforts to get money in the pockets of teachers."
While the bill advanced out of the House Education Committee, it still faces an uphill battle in the rest of the legislature.
The tax credit created by the bill would cost the state $17.7 million in 2023, and around $35.8 million each subsequent year.
In January, a Senate committee killed a similar Republican-backed bill, Senate Bill 30, with Democratic opponents arguing the money would be better spent on broad education funding. That bill would have costed $19.1 million in 2023 and around $39 million in subsequent years.
HB 1208 will next face the House Finance Committee in the coming weeks, where McLachlan said it will be up to the committee to determine if the bill is financially feasible.
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