BERNSTEIN: Doesn’t add up

Teachers should not be expected to spend money on their own classroom supplies

Public school funding is consistently a hot topic in election seasons and during budget talks, as it should be. But while we endlessly debate the best ways to apportion funding and incentivize better results in schools, according to a 2013 survey conducted by the Horace Mann Educator Advisory Panel, dedicated teachers across the country have been paying as much as $600 out of their own wages to get necessary supplies for their students.

These supplies range from the less essential, such as classroom snacks (though for some students who are struggling financially, these are essential), to the most basic supplies, including pens, pencils, and math and science tools — items that are obviously necessary for a functional classroom. Of course, this problem is not new: a survey conducted by the National School Supply and Equipment Association (NSSEA) found that teachers spent an average of $448 out-of-pocket on school supplies for the 1998 -1999 year. But given how long we have been confronted with this problem, it is remarkable how little has been done to remedy it.

The Horace Mann survey offers helpful details about why budgets in particular schools may have suffered, the most common being increased class sizes (60 percent of participants noted an increase in class sizes at their schools). Such an issue can and should be addressed by states when reconfiguring the logistics of their schools, but it is not necessarily the only or even primary factor leading to teachers paying out-of-pocket, since this problem precedes the latest increases in class sizes.

Rather, states clearly do not either apportion enough money for public schools, or they do not apportion the money they give to schools well, or both. This realization is not revolutionary in and of itself, but there are glaringly obvious solutions to improving budgeting — and the first one is to bring the talks to the teachers themselves. By using surveys such as that of the Horace Mann Educator Advisory Panel, as well as other studies, individual states should investigate how much their teachers pay out of their wages to support their students, and incorporate these findings into upcoming budgets. This does not necessarily mean increasing budgets (although in some states, that may very well be necessary); it means allocating money in a way that ensures students have a proper quantity and quality of necessary supplies.

It is a detriment to students and teachers alike that teachers are so desperate to help their students that they have to purchase supplies themselves. First, it is not generally expected in other professions that an employee pay for his or her job; this contradicts the very point of being employed. And second, if students do not have teachers who are willing to donate their wages to the resources students need, these students become further disadvantaged.

With proper supplies and tools, other issues we debate about schools may come closer to resolution, for obvious reasons. How can we focus on incentivizing good academic results in schools when students aren’t equipped with the proper supplies to achieve those results? Improving access to supplies could have a domino effect and probably lead to better test scores and graduation rates. It is amazing that there are teachers who are so dedicated to their students that they will forego their own, hard-earned pay. But this should never come with the territory of teaching. By simply incorporating these teachers into the discussion and learning from them where in the classroom we should be focusing our subsidies, we could come much closer to solving this problem.

Dani Bernstein is a Senior Associate Opinion Editor for the Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at

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