The lucky among us have had teachers who made a real difference in our lives, both in the classroom and in how we approach lifelong learning. Millions of teachers across the United States are now beginning a new school year with classrooms full of new faces and fresh ideas.
But with inadequate funding from schools—which is too often the case—many teachers will find themselves spending their own money on class materials as the school year gets underway.
Teachers spending out of pocket
Pre-kindergarten teacher Andy Yung is an expert at online fundraising for classroom opportunities for his students, but that doesn’t make him immune to buying supplies himself. “It’s almost expected,” he said, “especially in the summer months creeping up into September. It’s just something we kind of naturally do.”
While Yung is a great example of someone proactively achieving alternative funding solutions for his students, many teachers don’t have the means to start an online campaign, and it likely isn’t part of their job duties.
A recent survey of K-12 teachers concluded that, on average, teachers spent nearly 11 percent of their salary on classroom materials during the 2016–2017 school year. And while it is common for teachers to spend quite a bit of money on class supplies, the real problem lies in the lack of reimbursement from employers.
According to a 2013 survey by the Horace Mann Educator Advisory Panel, only 2 percent of teachers get full reimbursements from their school districts for out-of-pocket spending—and a report from the 2014–2015 school year reveals that over 94 percent of public school teachers spent money on classroom supplies without being reimbursed at all.
The cost of inadequate funding
Virtually all teachers end up paying for classroom supplies—and it isn’t cheap. According to the Federal Department of Education, public school teachers who did not receive any reimbursements spent an average amount of $479 per year, while 20 percent spent over $750 per year.
Those figures encompass rural areas, towns, suburbs, and cities, although teachers in cities spent more on average than any other group. A slightly greater percentage of elementary level teachers spent their own money without reimbursement (95 percent) compared to secondary grade teachers (93 percent).
While a lack of education funding is a major concern for teachers in general, it disproportionately affects math and science subjects, as we previously reported: Emily Clayton, an assistant professor at Campbell University, found that out of 696 math and science teachers across the U.S., 70 percent reported that they didn’t have enough support to teach their lessons.
Lack of funding is particularly an issue when it comes to STEM courses because classroom materials are substantially more expensive in these subjects—like beakers and vials that break and need to be quickly replaced, hands-on dissection lessons with materials that are only able to be used once, and classroom computers for programming.
Persuading lawmakers and administrators to factor in these sorts of “one-shot” supplies into recurring budgets would go a long way toward classroom stability. Without the right prediction models based on ongoing teacher need, teachers end up spending their own money on these materials so they don’t have to sacrifice the quality of their lessons.
“What other profession do you know where professionals have to use their own money to do their job properly?” asked Janet Fass, speaking for the American Federation of Teachers. “Do engineers, do accountants spend their own money? Why should teachers when they are far lower paid than other professionals?”
Alternative methods to supply classes
In light of funding challenges, teachers are finding clever ways to get around the lack of money. Beyond just engaging their communities and holding fundraisers within their local areas, many are turning to digital solutions.
For instance, DonorsChoose.org offers teachers the chance to crowdfund from an international pool of donors. The nonprofit organization connects classrooms that require extra funding with interested donors who would like to contribute to a specific cause.
As Forbes describes it, “teachers post their project and causes and can then share the page with friends and family, who contribute and pass it on to help the impact grow.”
Founded in 2000 by former Bronx high school teacher Charles Best, DonorsChoose.org has helped fund over 1.2 million classroom projects and, in doing so, has reached over 29 million students in total. The site is a popular resource among educators; in fact, teachers at 80 percent of public schools across America have listed a crowdfunding project on the platform.
Private funding is another option. Denver science teacher Bruce Hogue approached groups like the U.S. Geological Society, NASA, and private corporations like Lockheed-Martin in his quest for funding, and they donated thousands of dollars toward his classroom experiments.
Of course, it can be difficult to get the attention of large organizations, but this approach can work on a smaller scale, too. Local bookstores, libraries, grocery stores, credit unions, arts councils, and other groups are often willing to lend a hand or make a donation—and it never hurts to ask. As fifth-grade teacher Shirley Young advises, “If they say ‘no,’ follow with the question, ‘do you know anyone who could help with this?’ You never know where your need will be met.”
Some retailers offer Teacher Appreciation Days and discounts for teachers as well, which ameliorates the cost of supplying classroom materials. The most popular U.S. retailers that offer teacher discounts include Office Depot, Amazon, Staples, and Lakeshore.
The National Education Association also keeps a regularly updated list of 10 free resources for teachers that can come in handy when planning lessons and class activities.
Teachers helping teachers
There are even teacher-founded initiatives like the Teacher Store of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. After the local Cedar River flooded 10 square miles in 2008, many of the area’s schools had supplies damaged beyond repair that they couldn’t afford to replace. A group of teachers partnered with the Cedar Rapids Education Association (CREA) and a local credit union to create the Teacher Store, where educators can now get their supplies for free.
Completely run by volunteers, the store “sells” products from local businesses, including overstocked, seasonal, and slightly damaged merchandise. The Teacher Store comes packed with all the essentials, including pens and markers, instructional games, and workbooks. Teachers pay with “teacher bucks” earned through the CREA by using the credit union or taking part in local events.
Creating external support services for teachers is an excellent way to both build community and help teachers afford the supplies they and their students need most.