Meryl Johnson, a Cleveland, Ohio, high school English teacher, estimates that she spends $400 to $500 a year on supplies for her students. "I have a pretty extensive classroom library because of all the books I've bought over the 41 years I've been teaching," she begins. "At times I've bought sets, 35 or 40 copies of one text, for my students. Why? Because there's so much red tape to go through if you ask the district to buy them."
Johnson speaks matter-of-factly and does not try to mask her impatience with the bureaucratic roadblocks that impede classroom management. "If you go through the school system's channels, by the time the books get approved and are ordered, the school year is over," she continues. "This has been a long-standing problem."
Indeed, a 2010 survey by the National School Supply & Equipment Association found that 92 percent of teachers spend their own money on supplies and 85 percent buy instructional materials for the people they teach. Perhaps more surprising, the study concluded that, "Teachers' personal money is the most common source of funding for classroom projects. On average, teachers spent a total of $398 on school supplies in 2009-2010 and an additional $538 on educational materials." The total expended that year by the nation's 3.7 million teachers? A whopping $3.5 billion.
And it's not just teachers. According to the Summer 2012 issue of NEA Today, the newsmagazine of the National Education Association, 66 percent of education support professionals - a category that includes bus drivers, custodians, lunchroom staff, secretaries, security guards and skilled trades people - dig into their pockets to help kids in need. Their expenditures? An average of $216 per employee per year.
To understand these seemingly selfless acts of altruism, it's useful to look at the financing of public education and address the gaps that have developed because of budget shortfalls. Funding for the country's 98,800 public elementary and secondary schools - attended by 49.8 million kids nationwide - comes from a mix of state, local and federal dollars. Education Week reports that, "Every state has its own formula for providing a level of funding necessary for a basic education ... The amount of money particular school districts receive tends to vary dramatically, depending largely on property values, not just from state to state, but from district to district and from year to year." The range is enormous. Although the average US per-pupil expenditure - measured as an average of the mean expenditures in four main geographic regions - was $11,051 in 2008-2009, the District of Columbia, at the high end, spent $19,698 on each child, while Utah, at the other extreme, spent just $6,612.
Jennifer Berkshire works with the public education project of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice. Although she works exclusively in that state, she sees what is happening there as emblematic of a troubling national trend to shrink state revenue for public education. "It is often up to teachers to buy items that were once purchased by districts," she wrote in an email. "Another factor at work is the growing number of charter schools, particularly in urban districts, that now compete with traditional public schools for the same scarce resources." Charters, she adds, can supplement their budgets with donations from private citizens or foundations and are generally free to use the contributions they receive without cumbersome restrictions. "Charters can raise unrestricted funds and spend them on whatever they want," Berkshire stresses. "The result is that in traditional public schools the burden of purchasing even basic supplies - paper, pens and pencils - falls on teachers."
Meanwhile, talk to most teachers and they'll tell you that pens, pencils and paper are the least of it. In fact, school staff report buying all kinds of things - sports equipment, snacks, Band-Aids, mittens, coats, scarves, hats, floor coverings, posters, glue, construction paper, computers and iPads - everything you can imagine needing in a classroom.
Mississippi teacher Nancy Kent reports that: "In some districts, teachers have clothes closets and food pantries. Teachers bring their children's gently worn clothes to the closet and distribute them to children in need. The food pantry is stocked by teachers and parents, and on Fridays, teachers send home book bags with food" for consumption on days when students have no access to free or reduced-cost lunch and breakfast.
Education listservs are filled with similar tales. "You want students to be equal, with the same notebook, pencil boxes, pens and crayons," one teacher commented on proteacher.net, an open, online forum for educators. "At the end of the day, I have to feel good about my choices. I teach my students responsibility but I also teach them compassion."
"I spend eight hours a day in my classroom, five days a week," another contributor writes. "I want it to look nice and be comfortable."
Creating a pleasant environment that is conducive to learning means that teachers take as a given that they'll have to shell out money for posters, decorative materials and supplies for their classrooms. Meeting the personal needs of their students, however, is somewhat more difficult.
Kathy M., a veteran teacher in rural Vermont, says that the nurse and guidance counselor at her elementary school are responsible for assisting indigent kids and collecting clothing and supplies for those without. "They post what is needed on a faculty bulletin board and we buy what is requested," she says. "The counselor and nurse then distribute the goods discreetly so that teachers are not involved."
What's more, Kathy estimates that she spends $500 a year out-of-pocket on snacks, pencil boxes, markers, erasers and books. "Do I have to do this? No. Will the kids be okay if I don't? Yes. But do the kids deserve to be honored with a treat every once in a while? Absolutely."
Kathy cites another reason for giving to the kids in her care. Teachers, she continues, not only offer instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic and science, but also model the behaviors they hope to encourage, from generosity to creativity and interdependence. That 76 percent of elementary and secondary schoolteachers are female means that qualities typically associated with mothering are on display. At the same time, she says, caretaking is encouraged as a human obligation, not a gendered one.
Alison G., a kindergarten teacher in Massachusetts, says that she routinely buys cleaning products for her classroom. "The school has maintenance people, but our tables need to be washed down three or more times a day to keep the spread of infection down," she says. "I send the students home with a monthly wish list, asking parents to donate wipes, paper towels, napkins, glue sticks and tissues, but this year only a few parents can afford to send anything, so I have to buy almost everything myself."
Alison adds that her expenditures have for many years extended beyond keeping germs at bay and include the purchase of a wide range of art supplies. "During the summer a few of us drove to a store 90 minutes away because we had coupons. We bought paint, construction paper and gallons of glue," she reports, items that make all kinds of projects possible. "Whenever I see a good sale on things my students might need, I buy them," she adds. "I've not only purchased supplies, but also gloves, mittens, sweatpants and sweatshirts, which I give to the nurse to distribute to kids who don't have enough."
In addition, every Friday the school holds a drawing and the winner receives a new backpack donated by a local merchant. "The kids are given a ticket as a positive incentive whenever they make good choices or do the right thing during the week," Alison explains. "On Fridays, the tickets are put into a bowl. It's called Bagged Being Good, and sometimes, if a teacher has noticed that a kid needs a new bag, they'll ask the principal to pick his or her name."
Similarly Donna H., a middle-school science teacher from New Jersey, says that a caring committee periodically asks teachers to pay $5.00 to wear jeans to work on Fridays. This enables the committee to keep the supply coffers filled.
Such munificence pleases Brooklyn teacher-turned-librarian Janice D. Nonetheless, she is quick to point out that teachers in many areas are feeling pressured to write grants to supplement meager school budgets. "If you are an average teacher who wants to come in and do a good job, you're stuck, and your kids are stuck, unless you can pay out of pocket - something that has gotten harder since many teachers are working without a contract and have not been given a pay raise in several years - or get a grant or solicit a donation. Teachers are already so busy, but now they have to go to donorschoose.org, a funder that gives small grants to teachers, or apply to Target, Apple or other potential sources of money, to provide the things that their students need."
This pressure is part of the reason that 17-20 percent of teachers leave the profession within three years. Add in a seemingly ever-increasing number of students in every class, the need to buy supplies and equipment oneself, IRS rules that bar a teacher from deducting more than $250 for supply expenditures, job insecurity, delays in receiving supplies, textbooks, printed materials and technological resources, and shrinking budgets - and it is small wonder that anyone stays.
"When I look at funding for schools, cities don't seem to see public education as a priority," Cleveland teacher Johnson concludes. "More and more money is being taken away from what used to be public entities. As long as you have people in power who see privatization as more important than public schools, it will continue to happen."
NOTE: One teacher I spoke to said that the constant threat of layoffs had created "a climate of fear" in the schools. This fear was manifest in that all but two of the teachers I interviewed requested I not use their full names in this article.