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Educators: We Can’t Compensate for Budget Cuts

Teachers and support professionals dig into their own pockets each year for classroom resources. But this year, many say they can't.

Emilie Openchowski

One of the worst-kept secrets in education funding is that educators, such as teachers and support staff, often spend hundreds of dollars of their own money each year to ensure their classrooms have the basic resources they need. But many are warning that legislators and school districts have taken this "off the books" source of funding for granted, and that they may not be able to spend this year.

A 2008 study from Perry Research Professionals reported that teachers spent an average total of $395 of their own money on classroom supplies in the 2007-2008 school year – new teachers spent a whopping $770. School support staff often dig into their own pockets as well, says Stephen Byrd, a bus driver in Manchester, MI, to help students feel good about the school environment or even to keep them occupied during bus rides.

But this year, as budget cuts lead to ballooning class sizes and salary freezes, the days of big spending by educators may be coming to an end.

“Our classroom budget has been cut by a third,” said Diana Marcus, a fifth-grade teacher in Burlington, Mass. “I'll need to ask parents to send in supplies, such as pencils and journals. I know parents are feeling the pinch, but I simply cannot afford to make up the difference between last year's classroom budget and this year's.”

It’s the same situation faced by Fe’Dricka Moore, a science teacher in Atlanta, who had previously spent up to $800 per year out of her own pocket to fund interactive experiments. This year, she simply can’t afford it.

It may seem ironic that educators, who are often underpaid, must dig into their own pockets to ensure student needs are met, but some parents and school districts have come to expect it. And that’s a wrong – and dangerous – approach, says Patrick Crabtree, an Atlanta elementary school teacher who has spent thousands a year on his students. He has students who regularly show up on the first day of school empty handed, because parents expect he’ll provide everything from pencils to protractors.

“I give because I care and want to. It is unacceptable to expect me to,” he said. “The constitution guarantees free public education, and I respect that. [But] requiring pencil and paper is not too much. Would an employee of, say, Wal-Mart buy posters to help the company advertise something?”

Despite a dire economy – and, in some cases, spouses and partners who are out of work – some educators say they will still bite the bullet and spend money this year, for the sake of their students.

“I feel I have to do what it takes to make my students learn, even if it means providing them with notebooks and pencils every day,” said Sheron Joseph, who teaches in Bridgeport, Conn. She said it makes her feel effective and motivated when she knows students have the resources they need to learn.

Of course, what educators spend their money on this year may change. Marcus said anything she buys this year will have to be reusable.

“In the past, I've bought things for my students, such as books or gift certificates to the local book store, to put books into the hands of students and encourage them to read more,” she said. “I've purchased far more consumables in the past, and now I'm reluctant to purchase anything that won't stay in the classroom with my name on it from one year to the next.”


Report: Teacher salaries not keeping pace with inflation