Back to School: Who Really Pays for School Supplies

Ashlee Horn
Oct 4 · 3 min read

We’ve all heard the sayings: my dog ate my homework, I spilled coffee on my notebook. What we don’t hear is I don’t own a pencil, or I can’t afford a computer.

It’s been almost a month since school started. Though this time is touted as an enthusiastic return to form, filled with apples and first days, we want to discuss something much less glamorous. Specifically, how has the beginning of school affected the wallets of families and educators?

Over the past 10 years, many states have significantly slashed education funding, putting an increased financial strain on schools. These burdens are quickly passed onto students and their parents through ever-expanding school supply lists. The 2019 Huntington Backpack Index found that the average high school student will need to spend approximately $1,060 on school supplies and technology this year alone. Importantly, this number does not include much of the things we associate with school costs, like new clothes, fresh shoes, and fees for extracurricular activities.

In contrast, according to a 2019 survey released by the National Retail Federation, the average family plans to only spend approximately $696 on all school costs combined from apparel to classroom resources. As such, families will likely need to spend at least an additional $350 just to cover the most basic needs, leaving them ill-equipped to cover the many other fees incurred over the school year. Ultimately, students and their families will find themselves stuck between spending more than they planned or not being able to afford all they need.

This is where our educators come in.

Teachers care. We all know that no one goes into teaching for the big bucks. People teach because they are committed to educating children and helping them thrive. So, when their schools lack basic supplies, and families are struggling to provide the essentials, teachers step up to fill the gap and buy the supplies themselves.

According to the Federal Department of Education’s Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), 92.4% of teachers spend their own money on school supplies for which they are not reimbursed. In fact, on average teachers spend approximately $479 a year on supplies. The top 7% spend over $1000. In total, U.S. educators spend approximately $1.44 billion of their personal money every year to improve their classrooms and help their students.

The National Education Association asked educators to share how much they spend, what they are purchasing, and why they spend their own money using the hashtag #OutOfMyPocket. The stories that have been shared are as powerful as they are heartbreaking. One educator from Oklahoma wrote: “STEM-related activities are wonderful, but these activities can become expensive for the teacher. I have literally had to choose whether to purchase items for my classroom and students or pay bills. Honestly, the bills get put on the back burner more often than not. I am embarrassed to not live in a home that I would like teacher friends to visit. I just can’t afford this job, yet I have stuck with it for 15 years”

If you’re like us, these facts make you want to stand up for our children and support our teachers. So, what can we do?

Reach out to your representatives and tell them how you feel about education funding in your state and district. (Find your State Senate and House representative and contact information here)
You can also donate your time or money to an educator through a variety of platforms: Supports various classroom projects through donations for supplies, field trips, etc.
Volunteers of America: Donate to Operation Backpack, which connects children in need with new backpacks filled with grade-specific school supplies.
Fund For Teachers: if you have grant writing experience, you can offer up your time to write a grant using a template on behalf of teachers so they can receive funding for classroom supplies and/or technology.
If you’re an educator, share your story and resources that you and your students use. Tag us in your story and use the #RootNetworkSupplies

Acorn Labs

Acorn is a nonprofit social enterprise devoted to empowering teachers and innovating K-12 education. Learn more at

Ashlee Horn

Written by

Acorn Labs

Acorn is a nonprofit social enterprise devoted to empowering teachers and innovating K-12 education. Learn more at

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