Teachers Pay an Average of $480 Out of Pocket Every Year on School Supplies, Says New Report

A classroom of kids raises their hand to answer a teacher's question.
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A few weeks ago, my husband, who’s a New York City high school teacher, was helping students with a project about nuclear disarmament. They needed poster boards for the project, which was something his school didn’t have in stock. So, he stopped at a store on his way to school and bought $77 worth of poster boards. His school may be able to reimburse him if they have the money in their budget, but that’s not a given.

Spending this sort of money is normal for my husband. He buys his kids pizza as a reward when they behave well. On a recent field trip, he bought lunch for a girl who hadn’t brought cash with her. He buys other school supplies often too, and when the copy machine is broken at school, he makes copies at our home.

Like all New York City teachers, my husband was given a $250 “teacher’s choice” stipend to spend on school supplies, but that only goes so far. The rest of it comes out of his paycheck — which, as is the case for the majority of public school teachers, is relatively small. Our family basically lives paycheck to paycheck, so that $77 he spent last week stings for all of us.

Still, there’s no question that my husband will spend this kind of money for his students whenever they need it, and most teachers we know would do the same.

All of this is why I wasn’t the least bit surprised when I saw a new report released on Tuesday by the National Center for Education Statistics, which pointed out the fact that nearly all teachers end up spending their own money on school supplies. In fact, based on a national survey of teachers taken during the 2015-2016 school year, researchers found that a whopping 94% of teachers pay for their own supplies. The average spending amount was $479 per year, though 7% of teachers end up spending more than $1,000.

The cards are stacked even more against teachers who work in low-income school districts.

According to the survey, teachers who taught at schools where children were eligible for free or reduced lunch were 94-95% likely to spend their own money on supplies, whereas teachers in schools where children were not eligible for these services were only 86% likely to spend their own money on supplies. The Washington Post reports that the reason for this is likely because low-income schools don’t have as much funding for supplies, and that families of children at lower-income schools aren’t able to send in extra school supplies themselves.

Additionally, we all know that teachers who work in financially struggling school districts are likely to receive lower paychecks themselves. The recent school walkouts in Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia have highlighted not only the meager wages that teachers take home, but also a very desperate need for better conditions in their classrooms.

Laurissa Kovacs, an Oklahoma City teacher whose post about the crumbling conditions in her elementary school classroom went viral in March, describes the situation facing so many of her fellow school teachers perfectly:

“I’ve had to cut back on the fun, ambitious, and exciting projects literally because there isn’t enough room on the table for 32 kids,” Kovacs wrote in her Facebook post. “I literally do not have enough chairs for 32 students. These kids deserve so much better than this.”

Yes, they most definitely do. And while not all teachers are out there buying replacement chairs for their students, it really seems wrong that teachers are the ones who have to foot the bill for basic supplies like papers, pens, crayons, and tissues. Most teachers are happy to lend a hand sometimes, but these little things add up, and surely, a teacher’s wallet isn’t the first place we should dip into.

Luckily, concerned officials like Rep. Anthony G. Brown from Maryland agree. In 2002, Congress passed legislation giving teachers a $250 tax break for classroom spending fees, but as we all know, this money can only go so far. Brown and his colleagues in the House of Representatives are now sponsoring legislation to increase the federal tax cut that teachers get for school supplies, in hopes of raising it from $250 to $500 per year.

“In spite of tight classroom budgets, limited education resources and low pay,” Brown explained in a statement, “educators take hundreds of dollars out of their pockets to purchase supplies for their students to ensure every child has the resources they need to learn and succeed. Increasing this deduction acknowledges the importance of their work, is a small ‘thank you’ for the counselors, principals and teachers who make financial sacrifices to benefit their students, and helps achieve the outcomes we want for all our kids.”

Of course, we all know that even $500 might not cover the total cost teachers spend on school supplies. Still, it’s a welcome gesture, and would certainly be a “Thank You” to teachers everywhere — something they certainly could use some more of.

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