Out-of-pocket expenses from pencils to lesson plans are a fact of life for educators.

Before the start of school, Claudia Mcwayne walked into her classroom to find chairs and desks stacked on top of each other, wobbly bookshelves and empty walls.

The new fourth grade teacher at Mililani Uka Elementary School said she bought pencils, erasers, whiteboards, markers, decorations, snacks, prizes, organizers, a rug and other necessities to prepare for the school year. Her spending limit was $500, but said she is already well over. 

“It was a little overwhelming, especially because I haven’t gotten my paycheck yet,” Mcwayne said, noting the cost adds up with a class of 27. 

A $500 nonrefundable tax credit tucked into Gov. Josh Green’s tax relief package is intended for first-time teachers like Mcwayne.

Claudia Mcwayne has to prepare for her 4th grade class by buying various school supplies.
Claudia Mcwayne prepared for her fourth grade class by buying various school supplies. (Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2023)

Hawaii’s teachers spend an average of $953 out of their own pocket on various school supplies a year, according to the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

Teachers with a bachelor’s degree earn more than $37,900 to over $72,300, depending on their years of experience. 

House Bill 1049, which would create the credit, covers pre-K to 12th grade educators working in public, charter and private schools.

The bill is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday before the House Finance Committee. If it passes, it will go before the full House and then cross over to the Senate. 

“This tax credit will help cover teachers’ out-of-pocket school supply expenses and be an important step forward in addressing teacher retention and teacher recruitment,” said Gary Yamashiroya, spokesman for the state Department of Taxation. Students would also benefit, he said.

Claudia Mcwayne said her final spend exceeded her budget. (Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2023)

The initiative would cost approximately $7 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1 and $7.2 million for next year, according to Seth Colby, a research and planning officer at the state taxation department. 

If the bill becomes law, the Hawaii Taxation Department will create an application form for teachers to document their expenses based on receipts from the 2023 tax year, Colby said. 

Educators can already claim a $300 deduction on their federal returns for out-of-pocket expenses.

Getting Creative

Some teachers say the state tax credit will help tremendously, others call it a nice gesture. 

Mila Boucheva, who teaches English as a second language at Kamaile Academy, said she would use that money to buy books at Barnes and Noble for her students.  

“I would love that,” Boucheva said. “Maybe it’s not a whole lot, but it’s a start, and I would be very grateful for that.”

The purchases reflect how much Mila Boucheva spent so far this school year. (April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2023)

Boucheva has been teaching for nine years and even experienced teachers find themselves spending money to refresh the classroom. 

So far, Boucheva has spent more than $2,000 on snacks, cleaning supplies, prizes, and class decor. However, her most expensive purchase was about $1,600 for teaching resources and lesson plans created by other teachers. 

Boucheva said she recently started teaching at the elementary school level and needed lesson plans and age-appropriate classroom decorations. 

Many teachers are necessarily creative with saving, including creating go-fund-mes or shopping at Goodwill for furniture. There’s also Kumu’s Cupboard, a nonprofit organization that offers limited school supplies to teachers for free. 

The Department of Education has been asking for donations to help with the costs. A law passed last year also created a school supply subsidy pilot program. According to the education department, 20 public schools with an enrollment of 8,000 students benefit from the program.

Mcwayne said it’s essential that a classroom is colorful and inviting to her students. 

Currently, her classroom walls are filled with her students’ artworks, bins of arts and crafts, and books neatly stacked on the bookshelves. Mcwayne also created a classroom library with the rug she bought. The wall has silhouettes of prominent people such as Martin Luther King Jr., Frida Kahlo, and more. The words above the library read “Readers Are Leaders” in bold letters. 

“The kids will say, ‘We have the best class,'” Mcwayne said. “But I think the classroom is more inviting and a place they want to be in.”

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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