Out of Pocket: What Teachers Across the Country Spend on Supplies

Individual educators pick up where school districts leave off, but the results are messy — and unequal

Stand and Deliver

There are many ways to measure inequality in public schools, including test scores, free lunches, and graduation rates. But recently, as I was shopping for YA novels and art supplies and pre-sharpened pencils for my 8th-grade classroom, I wondered if there wasn’t another more direct way to get at educational inequities: by asking teachers what they spend out-of-pocket making sure their students are equipped to learn.

The IRS allows K-12 teachers to deduct up to $250 of unreimbursed classroom expenses. I’m all for this deduction. Surely a federal tax code that allows rich private equity fund managers to catch a break on their millions via the carried interest loophole can also find, somewhere in the couch cushions, a way for a teacher to lessen her tax burden by the sum she spends on pencils and notebooks for her students. Still, what an uneven and roundabout way of paying for education: relying on the largesse of individual employees to cover supplies out of pocket, then partially reimbursing them through the tax code, rather than simply funding schools with enough money so that they can purchase what each classroom needs.

This is emblematic of the way education is funded in the U.S. Like that one guy at your group dinner who plonks down his twenty before the tip has been calculated and then scrams, this country underfunds education at the state and federal level and then leaves local communities and individuals to pick up the rest of the tab — not just teachers but parents and municipalities as well.

The problem, beyond the hassle for the teacher of schlepping a Costco pack of Kleenex to her child’s classroom or pulling yet another gift wrap fundraiser catalog out of her backpack, is that this process ends up sharpening the differences between well-resourced and disadvantaged communities. It also undermines the notion of education as a public good — and, perhaps, it erodes a sense of “the public” as a larger human community than the families within your zip code.

This country underfunds education at the state and federal level and then leaves local communities and individuals to pick up the rest of the tab.

I will not have to spend any of my own money to stock my classroom this year, though I have in the past. I will be able to submit receipts for reimbursement up to $800, enough to buy not just pencils and paper but markers and nice, crisp poster-board, and cotton bolls for students to pull apart when they learn about the cotton gin, and funny wigs to wear when they put on skits. I teach in an affluent town.

Schools in rich communities like me not only benefit from heftier property tax revenue but also from the fundraising efforts of PTAs and district fundraising organizations (which can raise millions!) as well as the unpaid volunteer labor of stay-at-home mothers. And in case “PTA fundraisers” are calling to mind community-building bake sales to pay for nice but inessential extras, you should be thinking less “band uniforms” and more “a music program.” These days, it is not unusual for PTAs and fundraising organizations to foot the bill for such “luxuries” as art teacher and paraprofessional salaries, classroom technology, libraries, and even copy paper budgets.

When we fund essential educational services through local and individual sources, we end up reifying and reinforcing inequalities. Rather than public school being a leveler and a ladder up, it becomes a means by which well-resourced communities pass down their advantages to their kin, while helpfully boosting their property values.

To get a sense of how unevenly funded and resourced different schools are, I reached out to teachers across the country to ask what they were spending of their own money on their classrooms and what they were buying that their students wouldn’t have otherwise. Here’s what they had to say.

I’m moving into a new classroom this year so I’m spending more this year than in the past few years. Usually, I’ll spend about $500 a year on books, stickers, pencils, awards, and other items. This year, I’ve spent over a thousand and I’ll probably spend another couple hundred or more during the year. I’ve bought storage materials, curriculum materials, seating, student notebooks, and the usual stickers, bulletin board fabric and borders. I’m thinking of buying a table for my small groups as I don’t like the only one available for me.
 I’ll get $50 from the PTO and $125 from the school for supplies.
 I’m in a Title One school [
author’s note: this means the school receives extra funding from the federal government to boost the academic performance of disadvantaged students], with a rather low percentage of students in poorer families compared to schools I’ve taught at before. It’s 65% low socio-eco.

— 4th Grade Teacher, Texas

I usually spend well over $1000 each year on supplies for my kids: markers, crayons, pencils, glue, etc.. I also buy books and needed supplies for the classroom-name tags, locker tags, desk tags, stamp pads, etc. I get $0 from my school to spend on supplies. Without my buying supplies for my students they would not have anything! I also buy clothes, snacks, etc. to help my students!! 
 I teach Kindergarten in a small, rural school district and most of my students were free/reduced lunch students. I also had 5 students that were new to the country from refugee camps overseas. 
 I write grants to help cover our field trip to a science museum as most of my kids can’t afford the entrance fee of $3 along with the transportation costs.

— Alisa, Kindergarten Teacher, Minnesota

“I get $0 from my school to spend on supplies. Without my buying supplies for my students, they would not have anything!”

Each year our school has a small budget per department to get things like Post-Its, chart paper, markers, and sentence strips. These usually last about 6 months, so annually I usually spend about $200 re-upping my classroom supplies. On top of that, I generally chip in for a few kids to take field trips who wouldn’t be able to pay otherwise. I usually spend between $300 and $500 annually on my classroom. If I switch schools this doubles because you generally get an empty classroom your first year somewhere. The DOE [Department of Education] gives an annual amount called “Teachers Choice” for which you submit receipts half way through the school year. The amount we get back changes each year. I’ve been in the DOE since 2009 and the amounts have ranged from $49 to $150.

The PTA has a book drive and they get requests from us for our classroom libraries. We get support that way, too.

My school is a screened public school on the Upper West Side and we enroll students from all five boroughs. We are divided fairly equally among black, Latino and white students (about 20% each with the rest of the students Asian or biracial). We have about 27% students with IEPs [IEP students have special educational needs, often due to a disability] and a small ELL [English Language Learner] population.

— Irene, High School English Teacher, New York City

Not much at all, if anything [of my own money].

We have no PTA or PTA money. All [funds are] from SFUSD money. I had $100 gift card to Target, and could pillage supplies from the supply room and get books ordered by admin or librarian. I think I had an additional 100-$200 second semester that could have been reimbursed.

I did DonorsChoose a few years ago to get a classroom library set up (I needed very specialized books that I couldn’t get at the giant used book sales that are good for most YA lit — books that are at a first grade reading level but about high-school type content) — but I actually probably didn’t need to do this DonorsChoose fundraising among my friends — I should have asked around more with the librarian and admin, and they probably could have ordered me a lot of those books. They have since done so, in later years.

I teach 100% English learners, recent immigrants arrived in past 4 years, in an urban environment (in The Mission in SF). 90% get free or reduced lunch. I teach 11th grade English (American Lit).

My school is awesome. I know it’s not usually like this. Admin will get my supplies or books within days usually, with no money out of my pocket.

— Paul, English Language Development Teacher, San Francisco

I taught at a large comprehensive high school in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho with an enrollment of 1700 students. I had six classes of 30–35 students. The population was majority white and 60% free and reduced lunch.

I was one of 12 English teachers at my school. As a department, we received $300 total for the whole year. We elected to share the budget on a subscription to the NY Times’ Upfront magazine which we shared amongst our classes. That used up all of our department money. In addition to that budget, the district elected to give each individual teacher $100 to spend on our own classroom materials. This was a pleasant surprise to the veteran teachers at my school who said this had never happened before and would probably never happen again.

I spent my $100 on model-making materials for my Science Fiction and Fantasy students whose final project was to plan and write a novella and create a 3D model of part of their unique “world.” I bought scissors, glue, and chipboard with my budget.

Over the course of the year, I spent hundreds of my own dollars on books for my classroom library (especially YA and Sci Fi/Fantasy books since those were the electives I taught, and independent reading was part of my curriculum), classroom supplies (whiteboard markers, art supplies, pens and pencils, extra notebooks for kids who couldn’t buy their own, etc.), and books for myself related to teaching research and craft.

There were no supplies for our classrooms or students given to us by the school, the district, or parents. Some teachers would give extra credit to students who brought class supplies, e.g. Kleenex, but I was morally opposed to offering academic incentives to students just because they had extra money.

My colleagues and I shared materials as much as we could, but I found I had to spend a great deal of my own money just to get my classroom in working order for the start of school. I even had to buy things like a stapler, 3-ring hole punch, and tape dispenser.

I found I had to spend a great deal of my own money just to get my classroom in working order for the start of school.

One other place I spent money was on healthy snacks during testing windows. My students spent a couple days testing in the fall and a whole week testing in the spring. I bought fruit to share with my students during those tests. My students and I also invited several guests to our class, and I bought fruit for those visits as well.

It’s hard for me to say how much I spent last year, but it was easily $100/month or more during the school-year months.

— Krystal, High School English Teacher, Idaho

I spend $200-$300 of my own money, usually on books (Half.com), loss leaders (journals, pens, pencils, filler paper, some binders), so not so much in the art supplies. Although we get $350 from the school, it must be used with one vendor, at inflated prices, so I use that for the things we [the staff] always run out of. I spent my entire amount on pens. My “neighbor” spent his on pencils. The other neighbor bought all binders. You get the idea.

I look for free posters by mail and another teacher takes the time to laminate them for us. If I find a good poster or visual, I will get it, no matter the content, then share with my neighbors. It buys good will, creates a good feeling of community, and helps when I want to do a cross-curricular project. Our students are residential, so no parents to lean on.

— Vicki, High School Teacher, New Jersey

I teach 5th grade in a rural school in Utah. We are a Title 1 school. I don’t spend a lot of my own money on school supplies, except for books. I’d wager I spent about $50 on chapter books this last year. I get them at garage sales and 2nd hand stores whenever I can. I also use points with my Scholastic book club.

As a 2nd year teacher, I get $250 from the state legislature to spend on whatever classroom supplies I need. The last 2 years, I’ve used it for notebooks, binders, red pens, awards, incentives, etc. The school district supplies us with basic office supplies like pencils, dry erase markers, lined paper, glue, colored pencils, small composition notebooks, pens, etc. By law we cannot ask our students to bring anything like pencils, notebooks, etc. We can only suggest they donate stuff. So, if I want my students to have a spiral bound notebook and they choose to not “donate” one, I would have to use my own money or the legislative money.

I don’t do fundraisers and I don’t know anyone who does in my school. Our local education foundation does offer small grants and I’ve applied for and gotten them 2 years in a row. I have used that money ($200) for math manipulatives and sets of chapter books.

— Ray, 5th Grade Teacher, Utah