The following question was submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "The Law Q&A," ran in the Champaign News Gazette.
I’d like to deduct for private school tuition, and school supplies. Are any school expenses for elementary or high school students tax deductible?
No. Parents can’t deduct any educational expenses incurred for grade or high school. Only teachers can take a small tax deduction for school supplies they pay for themselves. For better or worse, our tax system says that education-related tax benefits are strictly for higher, “post-secondary,” education. That’s pretty much anything after high school. (Primary education is through grade 8; secondary education is grades 9 through 12.)
That rules out tax deductions for tuition at private grade or high schools. The reasoning seems to be that because there’s a free, public school option, Uncle Sam has declined to subsidize those who choose to pay for private schools. There’s no free option for school supplies, but the IRS still doesn’t allow any deductions for those expenses in grade and high school. Even for higher education, you can’t deduct the expense of school supplies unless they’re paid directly to the higher education institution. So, it’s only after high school, when there’s no free option, that the IRS allows tax breaks for educational expenses like tuition. Then, the higher education expenses for yourself, your spouse, or your dependents can qualify you for tax credits and tax deductions. For example, you can deduct up to $4,000 of college tuition expenses (but not for room and board).
There are also 2 different tax credits for parents of students with higher education expenses, or for adults with their own higher education expenses. Unlike deductions that just reduce your taxable income, tax credits are subtracted directly from your tax liability.
While the IRS does not allow any tax breaks for grade and high school tuition or expenses, they do tax scholarships to grade and high school students. Those scholarships often qualify as “tax free,” but when they don’t, they’re taxed regardless of the grade level. A free ride to prep school can therefore have tax consequences. Only teachers, then, get any tax break for grade or high school expenses. For them, the “educator expense deduction” allows a deduction up to $250 for certain unreimbursed expenses. Teachers married to each other can deduct up to $500. The IRS says you’re an “eligible educator” who can take this deduction if you work at least 900 hours in a school year as a teacher, instructor, counselor, principal or aide in grades K through 12. Because the “qualified expenses” that are deductible can get a bit tricky, teachers should consult IRS Publication 523, “Miscellaneous Deductions.” They should also keep receipts.
Note: Homeschoolers can’t claim the educator expense deduction.
The educator expense deduction first became law in 2002. It’s regularly scheduled to expire, and regularly gets extended. In 2011, over 3,824,221 educators claimed over $962,000,000 in deductions. Various surveys suggest the average teacher spends over $900 a year of their own money on supplies and materials, or a total of about $1.6 billion year.