If you’re a traditional public school parent, you’ve probably already received your child’s school supplies list for the coming year. Many families are no doubt planning back-to-school shopping trips this weekend to load up on pencils, notebooks and everything else their children need for class. Teachers are also getting ready for the year, building lesson plans and stocking up on classroom learning materials for their incoming students.
But what many people don’t realize is that over the past few years, state lawmakers have drastically cut funding for classroom supplies – forcing teachers and parents to pick up the slack. On top of that, politicians eliminated a back-to-school sales tax holiday that used to save North Carolina families an estimated $15 million each year on school supplies. In fact, some parents and teachers are even road-tripping to states like South Carolina and Virginia this weekend to take advantage of the sales tax holiday savings!
According to the Department of Public Instruction, North Carolina spent $59 per student on instructional supplies before the Great Recession began in 2008. But in the 2016-17 school year, that number will be down to about $30 per student. Proper funding for classroom supplies should be a top priority for our state lawmakers. Unfortunately, parents and teachers are being forced to fill an irresponsible funding gap created by the politicians in Raleigh.
When I first started teaching at Millbrook Elementary over a decade ago, teachers received $100 each year to buy classroom supplies. A couple years later, that was reduced to a $75 store credit at a local teaching supply shop. A couple years after that, the amount teachers could spend depended on how much their classrooms raised for the PTA. Then last year, teachers got nothing.
That’s why every year I’m forced to spend hundreds of dollars of my own money on classroom supplies for my students. If we’re doing a special project that requires anything other than construction paper and glue, I have to buy it. If we run out of soil during our plant unit, I have to buy it. In fact, a recent survey found that the average teacher spends about $500 of his or her own money on classroom supplies each year – but many spend much more than that, especially teachers in low-income areas. And when politicians cut funding for classroom supplies, it hurts our low-income students the most.
Nearly 70 percent of students at our school receive free or reduced-price lunch, and some are even homeless. But we try hard to make sure every student is able to succeed, no matter what their living circumstances are like. I’ve bought shoes for a student. I’ve kept crackers in my desk in case a student misses the bus and doesn’t get to eat breakfast. I’ve even bought extra pairs of underwear in case a student has an accident during class. We’re not certainly required to do this – it certainly doesn’t show up on the standardized test scores our lawmakers use to “grade” us on – but if going the extra mile for my students will help them reach their fullest potential in life, how can I not?
Nobody becomes a teacher to get rich, but we didn’t take a vow of poverty, either. North Carolina is already considered the second-worst state to be a teacher, and we rank 46th in the country for per-student spending. But instead of restoring classroom funding to pre-recession levels, our politicians would rather give tax cuts to millionaires. What message does that send to our teachers about the value of their work? What message does it send to our students about the value of their lives?
Yolanda Barham is a first-grade teacher at Millbrook Elementary School in Raleigh.