Home > Uncategorized > Back to School Means Teachers, Parents Dig Deeper Into Their Pockets… Taxpayers? Not So Much

Back to School Means Teachers, Parents Dig Deeper Into Their Pockets… Taxpayers? Not So Much

Philadelphia public school teacher Jan Cohan’s op ed article in Philly.com described HER back to school shopping list includes basic school supplies and asks parents to accept the reality that THEIR back to school shopping list should include supplies for their children. It wasn’t always so.

When I began teaching in Philadelphia in 1970 the junior high where I worked was on a double shift due to overcrowding, which posed logistical challenges for administrators and teachers alike. As a math teachers I had access to the department’s supply of chalk, paper, its mimeograph machine, textbooks that were appropriate for the grade levels I taught, and the AV equipment needed to teach mathematics: an overhead projector and a box of acetates to use on the projector. That was not all, though. Each teacher on the staff received a stipend they could use to acquire school supplies or instructional support materials of their choice as long as the department head approved. I forget the size of the stipend, but it was sufficiently large that I was able to use it to buy enough paper to put together my own “textbook” that included exercises for my students that matched their abilities, which, sadly, were well below the 8th grade level they were assigned to based on their age.

Throughout my career as a Superintendent, which ended in 2011, the districts I led ensured that teachers had sufficient supplies, though I would not be surprised if some teachers bought supplementary materials out of their own pockets the same way some parents who could afford to bought fancier calculators and tutorial texts for their children. From 1997 on I worked in a relatively affluent districts, which meant that there was no expectation that parents would need to provide basic materials like toilet paper for the bathrooms, tissues for the classroom, or blank paper for the teacher to use to photocopy assignments.

But from 2000 onward, I began to hear anecdotes from my colleagues about shortfalls that resulted in them cutting essentials from their budgets, essentials that led to districts serving children in poverty essentially requiring teaches to dig into their pockets and asking parents to do the same. And since 2008 I am confident the situation has gotten even worse, as inflation adjusted spending for public schools has declined since the so-called Great Recession. Contrast my recollections as a teacher in Philadelphia with this description provided by Ms. Cohan:

In order to adequately educate kids, we have to pick up the slack, spending on average $500 on our classrooms annually.

And first-year teachers spend significantly more. I easily spent a thousand dollars in my first year on basics like pencils and paper and markers, of course, but also on dictionaries, binders, a hole punch, a pencil sharpener, classroom posters (and absurdly expensive lamination), bulletin board borders, crates and bins, and a projector so my students could see all the lessons I prepared.

Because of the limited resources in many schools, it’s common for teachers to ask parents to provide supplies not just for their own children, but supplies like tissues to be shared with the entire class. It’s helpful to the teacher, who otherwise will be spending even more  out of pocket, but community supplies also reinforce sharing and cooperation and give students ownership of their classroom.

Most parents support their children’s teachers and graciously provide these community supplies, but I have to roll my eyes at the parents I’ve seen posting about greedy overpaid teachers having the nerve to ask for some glue sticks and pencils…

My colleagues and I have relied on crowdfunding to make ends meet. Our engineering teacher raised money on DonorsChoose last year to buy a robot kit and enter our students in a robotics competition. We crowdfund to defray the cost of field trips so our kids can experience the world outside the classroom. English teachers raise the money to buy class sets of novels for their students. Science teachers raise money for labs and experiments.

Ms. Cohan has been teaching for six years, which means she has only experienced budgets that shortchange teachers on supplies, fail to provide needed equipment for activities like a robotics, fail to provide “frills” like field trips, and fail to provide essentials like novels for literature classes and materials to perform experiments in science class. Consequently she sees the lack of supplies as an opportunity for students learning the value of “sharing and cooperation” and giving them “ownership of their classroom”. And she also turns to online sources that effectively equate public schools to charities.

I find this acceptance of deficient budgets distressing. Taxpayers of all ages should dig a little deeper in their pockets to “crowd fund” schools so that teachers can focus their time and energy on preparing for classes. If they did so in a spirit of sharing their resources with children in the community they might regain the sense of ownership in their schools that my community experienced when I attended schools in the late 1950s and early 1960s and in the districts I served during my career.

 

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