Who should Decide how Public Education Dollars are Spent?

It’s late August — which means it’s time for my annual custom of aligning my classroom’s desks into identical geometric clusters as I battle my classroom’s moody air conditioner. This time of year additionally indicates my consumership at CVS and Amazon will spike as I stock up on hand sanitizer (a must) and mini golf pencils (Don’t like them? Come to class with a pencil).

More broadly, late summer also marks the beginning of the purchasing period for a special fund for New York City teachers called Teacher’s Choice. Through the program teachers receive money allocated expressly for the purchase of classroom supplies. I’ve used it over the years to buy computer ink, heavy-duty tape, posters, and other indispensable instructional items. This year, NYC’s City Council raised our discretionary classroom supply fund to $148 per teacher, up from $122.

There has been a recent upward trend of this funding which aligns fairly well with the general economic recovery from the recession. A jump of $26 ($122 to $148) may not seem like that much, but that $26 multiplied by over 75,000 NYC educators accounts for a $2.65 million bump from last year. Including some money set aside for other school-based staff, such as secretaries, the City Council is allocating $12.3 million for Teacher’s Choice for the 2016–2017 school year.

The leadership of my union, the United Federation of Teachers, helped organize a campaign to advocate for raising the Teacher’s Choice funding. Our leadership encouraged union members to tweet at Council members about their out-of-pocket classroom costs; reportedly over 1,000 union members did so. Of course it is impossible to determine the precise effect of these tweets, but it is this type of organizing that allows teachers to share their experiences firsthand with elected officials — some of whom have not spent much time in a PK-12 classroom in 40 years.

Our union president, Michael Mulgrew, said in his springtime testimony to a City Council subcommittee that data from surveys his team distributed to union teachers show that the average teacher spends $500 a year on supplies. This type of evidence gathering includes teachers in the political process and allowed our president to make a more compelling argument. While Mulgrew hopes to have the funding raised to $250, the amount allocated about ten years ago (before the recession), we are still about $100 per teacher off from that mark, or roughly $7.5 million more in additional funding.

School spending in the United States is up over threefold since the 1970s in current dollars, according to some measures. I encourage this growth but as many teachers can attest, far too much of that funding is spent on poor professional development, unneeded supplies that sit idly in school closets, or even more wastefully.

But allowing teachers to directly determine how to spend tax dollars on their classrooms not only helps teachers teach and kids learn — it is also fiscally prudent. Let those who know their work best spend to make it better.

It’s true we can’t just throw money at public education and hope it fixes the unacceptable achievement gap that has persisted for far too long. But Teacher’s Choice isn’t throwing money at anything; it is a precise tool that allows teachers to make wise spending decisions to help kids. Teacher’s Choice also raises a more fundamental question: where else should teachers be empowered to make decisions to support their classrooms?