Tips and Ideas / Jun 19, 2018

Out Of Pocket, Out Of Luck: When Funding Fails Teachers

This article originally appeared on as a guest contribution by Dr Rod Berger on May 17, 2018.

The shortfalls of U.S. public education funding capture national attention when picket lines emerge and images of outdated, torn-up textbooks are strewn across the screen. A recent deluge of media coverage has focused on strikes across the country, shining an important spotlight on the growing reality that present funding models struggle mightily to meet basic thresholds of need for students and teachers. In too many instances, teachers are left with a decision to make: pay the proverbial “tab” or let their students go without updated materials?

Public school systems employed about 3.2 million full-time-equivalent (FTE) teachers as of fall 2017. Accounts of how much teachers spend on classroom supplies vary, with educators stating their out-of-pocket expenses can fall between $200 up to a whopping $2,000 per school year.

SheerID surveyed K-12 teachers during the 2016-17 school year and found that, on average, they directed nearly 11 percent of their salary toward classroom supplies and instructional materials. Conservative estimates put the funding gap at around $1.5 billion annually.

The gap in supplemental supply spending is not a news flash. In 2013, the Horace Mann Educator Advisory Panel Survey uncovered that only two percent of teachers get all school supplies funded without using their own money. Over half of the surveyed teachers reported that the funding did not cover the essential classroom supplies. Recently released data from the 2014-15 school year found that over 94% of public school teachers spent money for classroom supplies and did so without reimbursement from their district.

One Oklahoma teacher revealed, to the Huffington Post, that her classroom expenses can reach $4,000-$6,000 in a single year. “Their little faces are just devastated when they don’t have books and colors,” said DeAnn Moran. While her spending has been on the rise as the state continued to slash education funding, teacher salaries in her state remain among the lowest in the country for public educators.

Teachers who work in low-income communities or work with special needs children are especially prone to reaching into their own pockets to provide what is needed. Jessica Horner, a special needs educator in New Jersey, recently penned a blog post shedding light on the specific challenges she faces. “I spend more than $1,000, closer to $2,000 each year. With my students, the things they need, or that I can’t wait for, I have to go and get it [myself]. My district can get me something but I’m only just getting items I ordered a year ago.”

Overall, teachers at high-poverty schools spend almost $150 more annually, bankrolling lunches and other basic necessities for students in need.

Teachers Get Creative To Get Their Students’ Needs Met

Despite this bleak and unacceptable reality, teachers are determined to find creative ways to provide their students with the supplies and learning environments they deserve. This is not a problem that a bake sale can solve – teachers are increasingly embracing digital solutions to provide what’s needed where public funding falls short.

Teachers across the country embraced, a nonprofit that connects classrooms to those willing to support their projects. 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.

Bruce Hogue, a science teacher from Denver, reported to ABC that he turned to private funding for help, connecting with donors directly. He managed to persuade the likes of NASA, the U.S. Geological Society and private corporations like Lockheed-Martin to donate thousands for his classroom experiments.

He’s not alone. Where public funding fails, private companies are stepping in. ClassTag is a parent-teacher communication app that noticed teachers’ struggles and made bold changes to their business model. Now, the company partners with sponsors that want to connect with parents and donate money to their children’s classrooms. Parents also receive promotional materials about sponsors’ products and exclusive offers. The companies ClassTag partners with are mainly educational services and children’s products, ensuring that parents are only presented with relevant offers.

“As a parent, I use ClassTag daily to check what’s coming up at school or let my son’s teacher know about any concerns. Once I found out about the sponsorship opportunity, I was keen to support brands which are donating to our classroom. My son’s teacher already received the first sponsorship payment and bought a STEM experimentation kit that kids loved. I’m glad we are using ClassTag and my kid can have better learning materials,” explains Kim, a parent from Philadelphia.

ClassTag’s CEO, Vlada Lotkina, says that since adding ability for teachers to fund the resource gap and get their students what they need, they received an enormous wave of gratitude and appreciation from the teachers. “We felt that we need to step up and come up with a creative solution to help the teachers and the students get much-needed additional funding, and with great brand partners we were able to make it happen. The more schools join our platform, the more we can accomplish. The opportunity is huge and we are committed to seize it!”

“A lot needs to be done to bring teachers’ salaries and school funding to a level that reflects the crucial role they play in our society.”

Meanwhile, our school system relies on the goodwill of private companies, individual donors, and the teachers’ relentless pursuit of student wellbeing.

It’s a long-established fact that teachers routinely pick up the tab to provide what’s missing in the classrooms and ensure their students have what they need. But anecdotal stories like the one from Oklahoma are just the tip of the iceberg. What’s the real cumulative cost of the education resource gap?

Dr. Rod Berger is the author of Unleashing Student Potential to Make a Difference in the World and The Key to Equity in Education.

Email: Twitter @DrRodBerger

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