Teachers and students shouldn’t have to panhandle for school supplies

Bags of donated school supplies begin to fill a truck during a drive organized by Raleigh Rescue Mission outside Dollar General in Raleigh, N.C. on Saturday, Jul. 22, 2017.
Bags of donated school supplies begin to fill a truck during a drive organized by Raleigh Rescue Mission outside Dollar General in Raleigh, N.C. on Saturday, Jul. 22, 2017. newsobserver.com

As a North Carolina educator, it breaks my heart to see young African-American children in South Raleigh having to start a lemonade stand just to pay for basic school supplies their parents cannot afford. Or a teacher in Oklahoma resorting to panhandling at a freeway off-ramp to help pay for paper, pencils and scissors for her classroom.

Teachers I work with every day are dipping more and more into their own pockets to pay for the basics, because we cannot stand to see our students go without them. But it was not always this way in North Carolina.

Like the rest of the nation, our state’s economy continues to recover from the Great Recession. But unfortunately, our public schools are experiencing a permanent recession thanks to state lawmakers who simply don’t consider public education a priority. Instead, state lawmakers just keep cutting taxes for millionaires and big corporations.

Adjusted for inflation and enrollment growth, North Carolina spends about half as much per student on classroom supplies compared to before the recession. For parents, every year the school supply list that comes home is a little longer and a little more expensive. But instead of restoring education funding to pre-recession levels, the politicians in Raleigh have only made things worse.

Even now that the economy is back on its feet and state lawmakers put a record $1.6 billion into the rainy day fund, in our classrooms it continues to rain. Our classrooms still don’t have the materials they need, which means districts are forced to ask parents and teachers to pay for basic supplies which should be included in the state budget. The burden to educate our state’s next generation is falling increasingly on those who cannot afford it.

Not every school is fortunate enough to have parents who can provide basic supplies for their children’s classrooms. Imagine having to ask for school supplies from a family who may be forced to choose between paying the rent and buying pencils and glue sticks. Do I add to the family’s financial burden by asking for needed supplies they may not be able to afford, or do I add to my own financial burden by paying for them out of pocket? Why is my state forcing me to make this choice in the first place?

Still, I am pressed to meet the needs of 61 children every day. This means I’m going to the store and buying novels out of my pocket, and asking parents who have the means to donate to the school so that every child can have a book in their hand.

Our state refuses to provide our students with what they need to thrive in the future business landscape. Meanwhile, teachers are unable to focus on delivering the instruction their students deserve, because they’re too busy worrying about obtaining basic classroom supplies.

Teachers might seem like miracle workers sometimes, but I assure you we are not. We need the tools to do our job, just like electricians or plumbers need tools for their jobs. But instead of giving us the tools we need to ensure the success of our students, the politicians in Raleigh would rather give huge tax breaks to millionaires and big corporations.

Even as countless other teachers leave our state for better pay elsewhere, I am still teaching in North Carolina. After all this time, I am still here because I passionately believe that the children of our state are its future. If our state is to succeed, then we must do everything we can to make sure its students succeed. I wish the General Assembly felt as passionately about those children as I do.

Del Lancaster is a teacher at Joyner Elementary School in Wake County.

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