Amid budget cuts, teachers scrimp for student supplies

Last Updated Aug 17, 2016 2:47 PM EDT

Teachers in the U.S. have long reached into their own pockets to help cover the cost of school supplies. But that financial burden is getting heavier amid funding cuts around the country for public education.

One educator, who teaches art to roughly 300 students at one preschool and two elementary schools in western Connecticut, said her budget for supplies amounts to $1.60 per student -- for the whole year. That’s down from roughly $15 per child during her student-teaching days more than a dozen years ago.

“I don’t know anybody who doesn’t dip into their own pocket,” she said. “Most teachers love their kids and want the environment to be as safe and comfortable as possible, so if it takes buying extra hand sanitizer, tissues, crayons, art supplies, folders or certain books, so be it.”

That can-do attitude, while commendable, isn’t always practical in a field where salaries remain fairly modest and in which states still recovering from the recession have slashed education funding to close their budget gaps. As a result, teachers find themselves buying more and more of the pencils, staplers and other basics that schools used to provide.

“We used to have a supply closet, but now it’s not open, and you have to get permission from the principal,” the teacher, who did not want to be identified, explained. The efforts at frugality include monitoring the use of copy machines, with some teachers reprimanded for using too much paper, she added.

Parents are also often asked to contribute money or other materials to keep classrooms equipped.

“A lot of the children have grandparents that pick them up, so I mentioned to one of the grandmothers, ‘I know you knit,’ so I hooked up with a lot of her leftover material,’” she said of her efforts to gather materials her students use to make art.

The percentages vary by state, but about 46 percent of spending for kindergarten through 12th grade nationally comes from state funds. Local governments provide another 45 percent, and the federal government makes up the rest, according to the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute.

In a study released early this year, the institute found that most states offer less support per student than before the recession and that some states continue to cut back. At least 31 states provided less funding per student in the school year ending in 2014 than in the 2008 school year, and in at least 15 of those states, the cuts surpassed 10 percent

School districts can raise additional revenue by hiking property tax rates, but that’s politically challenging even in good economic times.

Teachers are going the extra mile for their students in other ways. Aubrey Quackenbush, a first-grade teacher at Boston Renaissance Charter Public School, turned to crowdsourcing to raise money to help develop a list of summer activities for her students, most of whom come from low-income families.

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Teacher Aubrey Quackenbush with a student

Quackenbush realized many of her pupils were rattled about the approaching end to the school year because of the framework it gave their lives. “The structure of the school day is really comforting for some of them,” she explained. “They love coming to a place where they know exactly what’s going to happen.”

To help provide that structure and fill the summer months before the start of the school year, the teacher launched a GoFundMe page to fund the creation of baskets filled with crafts and other items to keep the children occupied during the summer break.

Given to students in June, the baskets held $80 worth of goods such as books, sidewalk chalk and tickets to the New England Aquarium. The baskets also held “bug-catching kits -- they were really excited about that,” Quackenbush said.

The teacher timed her fundraising to coincide with a promotion on GoFundMe, in which the company donated $50 to a campaign that raises at least $250 to help a teacher, student or classroom between Aug. 18 and Sept. 18. For those raising $1,000 or more, it contributed $100. A new GoFundMe initiative, with a potential $10,000 prize, covers campaigns created between Aug. 17 and Sept. 16 of 2016. 

Individuals’ donations to education campaigns have tripled during the last two years, a period in which more than $100 million was raised for such efforts, the company said.

“What’s driving a lot of this is teachers need supplies,” Rob Solomon, GoFundMe’s CEO said. “That’s hard when you’re living on teachers’ salaries,” he added, pointing to studies that estimate teachers spend an average of $500 a year on their classrooms. “Certain districts are well funded, but when three-quarters of all teachers have to reach into their own pockets, it suggests a widespread problem from a public spending perspective.”

One aspect Quackenbush loved about her project was getting to see the reaction of children benefiting from the generosity of strangers.

“They’re so young in first grade and are just learning what it means to be a good person,” she said. “Getting to see that first-hand, with people that they don’t even know giving them gifts, that’s going to stick with them -- just the kindness of people. That’s really valuable for them.”