Think of them as little dreams trapped in cardboard boxes. Among them are teachers’ ideas for getting children excited about mathematics, and for making history come alive in the classroom. In all, more than a thousand of them are stowed away—for now, anyway—in offices of the Ohio Department of Education.
When Buckeye State education officials set up an unusual state program earlier this year to reward teachers with small grants for class projects, they budgeted enough for about 80 awards, ranging from $500 to $6,000. To their surprise, 1,150 proposals flooded in from all corners of the state.
Educators hardly begrudge the modest size of the program, especially with looming education budget cuts in many states. But its organizers say the huge response points to the scarcity of money for innovative teachers to spend on discretionary projects.
“The extent of the need out there is so great,” said Deborah M. Telfer, an associate director of the state education department’s center for the teaching profession. “I’m not exaggerating: We were up to over 100 calls a day in the last two weeks leading up to when the proposals were due, with all the questions teachers had.”
Policymakers elsewhere have made gestures recently in recognition that teachers often dip into their own pockets to pay for school materials.
In recent years, Utah has set aside $5 million annually in state funds to help cover such expenses, and North Carolina this year approved a $100-per-teacher yearly allowance—far short of the $1,000 annual stipend initially sought. President Bush has proposed a special federal tax write-off to compensate educators who buy supplies for their classrooms, but a plan to do so was lost in the battle this past spring over a major new tax bill.
But Ohio’s grant program, which is budgeted at $160,000, differs because it requires teachers to submit a plan explaining how the money would be used to further their schools’ educational objectives.
Along with the grants, winners were treated to a privately funded gala and dined with Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, and state schools chief Susan Tave Zelman.
“Our thought was to try to recognize the normal, everyday teacher who works very hard in their class, and who puts a lot of their own money into the projects they come up with,” said Marilyn Braatz, a spokeswoman for the education department.
Deciding who would get the money was no easy task.
“When we were finished, the person I was reading the proposals with and I thought how very sad that these things are not being sponsored through schools routinely,” said Deborah Tully, an official with the Ohio Federation of Teachers who helped review the submissions.
At Fairfield Middle School in Fairfield, Ohio, a group of teachers won $3,500 for a proposal called “Project Common Denominator,” based on the upcoming Winter Olympics.
Students will research participating countries, learn how to make metric conversions, and examine the role that character plays in the formation of an Olympic athlete. The grant will buy materials, such as wall maps, and help sponsor speakers, including past medal winners and local leaders involved in the unsuccessful bid to bring the Games to Cincinnati.
“Part of projects like this is that they give you a shot at reaching some of those kids who do not respond to the normal things in the classroom,” said Shirley Herzog, a 25- year language arts teacher at Fairfield Middle School.
In other schools, the money is paying for ordinary items like bird feeders, art supplies, and fish tanks. Some money is buying books. One teacher plans to use part of her grant to buy tape players for her special education students. Her school’s social studies textbooks came with audio tapes, but her class has lacked any way to listen to them.
But for every proposal that won a grant, more than 10 were submitted for which the state program lacked funds. Struck by the volume of submissions, the education department is looking for additional money to support more of this year’s submissions. The hope is to continue the program next year. Complicating matters is a $700 million shortfall in the state budget.
The results of a survey that teachers filled out as part of their proposals, however, are expected to help make the case for additional funding for the program.
In the survey, the teachers were asked to describe their out- of-pocket expenses, and to explain what they would do if they had another $1,000 to spend on their students. The responses are to be compiled in the coming weeks.
A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2001 edition of Education Week as Creative Teachers Overwhelm Ohio Program With Ideas