Photo via Shutterstock.
Photo via Shutterstock.

The Internal Revenue Service says President Donald Trump’s $73 million in tax refunds is “questionable.” Here’s a look at where those tax dollars could normally end up in a state like Michigan.

KALAMAZOO, MI—Kalamazoo English teacher Holly Bruning teaches sixth-graders how to craft sentences and master the ins and outs of punctuation and capitalization. It’s a challenge to get her students to perform at grade level, many of whom lack the foundational knowledge needed for those tasks.

“In one class I have students reading and working at a kindergarten level through a ninth or 10th-grade level,” Bruning told The ‘Gander. ”There are some students who come to me not knowing how to read and/or write, so that’s where we start.”

From resources to meet that need to the resources to simply get through the day, her students’ needs are many, but even in normal years most of the money for those resources comes from Bruning’s pocket.

She manages to get by only spending a few hundred dollars each year, but some of her colleagues spend more than $1,000 out of pocket on everything from pencils and paper to incentives for study sessions and group activities, she said. 

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During the pandemic year her class needs masks, gloves, cleaning supplies, and other coronavirus protections, but Bruning got nothing to put towards these resources when schools reopen in November. 

“Everything that I have needed this year to be successful in my role as an educator has been out of my own pocket.”

The $73 Million Elephant in the Room

The New York Times reported that Trump received almost $73 million a decade ago in a questionable tax refund, money the Internal Revenue Service has been investigating him over for years, according to Trump.  

That $73 million could’ve represented a lot of money for Michigan schools and teachers like Bruning. Decades of disinvestment in schools has placed an enormous strain on K-12 education, and Trump’s Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has exacerbated that problem by attempting to divert coronavirus funding from public schools to private schools. But Trump’s tax refund could have contributed to reversing that trend. 

For instance, Michigan teachers like her make an average of $61,000 per year. That means that the money Trump received could be used to hire nearly 1,200 teachers in Michigan in the next year. Those teachers, at a class size of 30 students, could teach almost 40,000 Michiganders.

Teacher Kellie Tounsel, who teaches kindergarten in West Bloomfield, wants more paraprofessionals for her students—Trump’s nearly $73 million refund could hire more than 3,000 paraprofessionals to assist special needs students in Michigan. 

Infographic by Denzel Boyd.

“There were a lot of kids in my class throughout the years that needed that special attention,” Tounsel explained to The ‘Gander. “[They] had special needs or emotional needs a professional needed to be there. That wasn’t available.”

Laptops, like the ones Kalamazoo schools are using to teach students remotely during a pandemic, could be given to over 200,000 American students with $73 million. And the WiFi hotspots Bruning says Kalamazoo has been setting up? For $73 million, school districts across America could set up 50,000 of them and operate them for a year. 

If she could get anything for her students, Tounsel would get them access to computers and laptops. Los Angeles is spending almost $800 per device, making it one of the most expensive technology programs in the nation.At that price, Trump’s refund could buy nearly 100,000 high-end computers for classrooms like Tounsel’s. 

More than anything, what Bruning wants in her school is counselors, though. Her students are often facing difficulties born of poverty and anxiety, and need the attention of mental and emotional wellness professionals. 

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“There are so many students that come from trauma-induced backgrounds or extreme poverty that learning is not a priority for them nor should it be—these kids are in survival mode,” Bruning said. “I think having multiple social workers and multiple counselors within my building would not only help students find success, it would mean that we can work on survival skills, find safety, start learning, build community.”

The $73 million could hire almost 1,500 school counselors in Michigan. And school counselors are, nationally, in dangerously short supply, according to research by the American Civil Liberties Union. Experts recommend that each counselor serve 250 students, which means that price tag could get 350,000 Michigan students adequate mental health care.

“Community and a sense of purpose is what a lot of kids are missing in my neck of the woods and I would love for them to know that they are worth it and deserve these basic needs. So many people don’t understand how proper funding truly impacts a child’s life.”

What Education Disinvestment Looks Like Across Michigan

Instead of putting more resources like paraprofessionals or laptops into the hands of teachers, the approach Republicans have taken for decades is to focus on lowering taxes on the wealthy. Because taxes are the means by which government programs, like schools, receive funding, those tax cuts reduce the resources schools have to work with. 

Governments at the local, state and federal level don’t just print money to fund things like computers and counselors for schools. Governments collect taxes from the people, and use that tax money to fund those resources and initiatives. So reducing the amount taxes paid by the wealthiest Americans has a tangible effect on what money schools can draw upon.

That’s created a crisis in Michigan schools, playing out year after year in the classrooms of Bruning and Tounsel.

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Bruning said her school is critically understaffed. While on paper her school has a teacher for every 19 students, that doesn’t quite translate into smaller class sizes and meeting the students’ needs, she explained, because different schools need different things. Her school, for instance, primarily serves low-income and transient students, which poses far different challenges from a different school.

“Our staff size does not adequately support the students that we serve. We actually lost teachers, two teachers, in the last two years to student enrollment,” she said. “District administrators believe if you have X amount of students then you only need X amount of staff members; which couldn’t be farther from the truth and actually creates more problems and issues of stretching ourselves too far to best support our students.”

Her class sizes range from 35 students to as few as 18 in her advanced classes. As her school copes with the pandemic, her district has done a job she commends in helping those students adapt. Kalamazoo Public Schools is hosting Chromebook pickups for families and teachers, helping those without internet get to WiFi hotspots set up by the school or install their own internet and practicing remote learning. But that changes after Thanksgiving, when Kalamazoo students go back into classrooms for a hybrid instruction model, when personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies get factored into the resource needs of Bruning’s classroom

That’s the tip of a very, very large iceberg when it comes to the ways Bruning’s school is underfunded, she explained. 

On the opposite side of Michigan, in Bloomfield Hills, Tounsel teaches preschool and kindergarten students, many of whom have special needs. She echoed the call for more staffing. 

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Tounsel said that it wasn’t so much that her elementary school was understaffed as much as they lacked specialists they needed to address the needs of students. She also worried about the way diminishing funding for the arts in K-12 education will impact students throughout their lives. Things like art and music are important, she told The ‘Gander.

“Doing those things at an earlier age, it really does help them out through elementary school, through high school, through college, through life, period,” she said.