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Teachers Spend Hundreds of Dollars a Year on School Supplies. That's a Problem.

—Image courtesy of Ann Ness.
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Last week, the courageous Oklahoma elementary teacher Teresa Danks earned nationwide media coverage by panhandling for school supplies. After the 3rd grade teacher held up a sign on a highway overpass, her viral photo raked in more than $25,000 in donations. Many teachers saw it as a brave and original way to call attention to a problem that they know all too well.

While other teachers may not take to the highway, Dank’s need for school supplies is unfortunately not unusual. There are thousands of stories like hers around the country. According to a survey of more than 1,800 public and private school teachers conducted in the 2015-16 school year by the nonprofit AdoptAClassroom.org (of which I am the executive director), the average American educator spends $600 of her own money every year on basic supplies.

These funds not only cover typical staples such as copier paper or colored pencils, but also go toward clothing and personal hygiene necessities for students who need them. In fact, two-thirds of all classroom supplies are purchased by teachers. And 91 percent of teachers—many of whom receive modest pay to begin with—purchase basic supplies for students whose families cannot afford them. All of these expenditures can add up to more than $1 billion every year out of educators’ own pockets.

A Common Experience

As a nonprofit leader who works to connect teachers with funding for school supplies, I know this problem well. In my work with donors and educators, I hear daily testimonials from teachers that a lack of school supplies handicaps their ability to do their job.

Consider Samsam Warsame, a Somali-American teacher in Minneapolis who teaches math and science to Somali and Ethiopian 1st graders, many of whom once lived in refugee camps. To provide an enriching learning experience, she spent $300 of her own money on math and science supplies in the first few months of school—money her students’ parents didn't have. But she worried about how much money she would have to spend the rest of the year to continue providing for her students.

A lack of supplies can be particularly surprising for teachers who are just beginning to create their own classrooms. In her first year of teaching, Chloe Cole, a teacher from Austin, Texas, discovered quickly how expensive school supplies, particularly those involving technology, could be. She said that while many people think teachers are given buckets of supplies at the beginning of the year to do their jobs, that is far from reality.

When teachers are able to provide their students—particularly those from low-income backgrounds—with adequate supplies, their learning experience is transformed. Becca Hanson, an elementary school art teacher in St. Louis Park, Minn., found that giving her students a “limitless classroom” is a huge deal, especially in her low-income school. "When I am able to give them opportunities through different supplies, they see that they are not limited," she said. "They see that they can do more and be more. It gives them a lot of self-assurance."

A Growing Need

Making teachers responsible for funding basic necessities in their own classrooms is not an adequate solution to the problem. What if all of America’s teachers stopped spending their own money to buy supplies for their students for one year? Imagine how many classrooms would lack the resources children need to write, read, learn how to use fundamental technology, or work on creative projects.

This problem shows no sign of disappearing any time soon. Per-student funding for public education has dropped in recent years. More than 30 states spent less money on students in 2014 than they did before the Great Recession—in some cases, at least 10 percent less. We are also facing teacher shortages in school districts across the country, especially as teacher burnout increases. In my home state of Minnesota, for example, more than 25 percent of new teachers leave the classroom after three years. And with a majority of public school students living in poverty, many come from homes where their parents simply can’t afford to make up for a lack of supplies in school.

A Necessary Solution

In the coming months, as a new school year begins, the country will debate major changes in education policy around school choice, vouchers, and teacher training. Amidst these important discussions, we should not lose sight of what may seem like a very small, but very real, problem: Students need tools to learn.

It’s incumbent on parents, school districts, and policymakers to remember that sometimes the problem right in front of you is the one most fixable. Parents must urge their local school districts and state legislatures to adequately fund education, including by providing supplies to students who need them. Teachers must continue to make noise about the supplies they need the most and which districts have the greatest needs. No matter what changes we make on major policies, teachers—and their ability to both teach and make learning exciting for children—remain the most important component of education. We should not let a lack of basic supplies keep them from doing their jobs. We owe better funding to our children as well as our teachers.

If we all do our part, a classroom full of pens, notebooks, art supplies, and science materials will be in reach for every child who walks in the schoolhouse door.

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