On average, public school teachers have spent almost $500 out of pocket on their students so far this year, a 25 percent increase from 2010.
A problem once associated primarily with inner-city schools, the seemingly scant school budgets are proving insufficient for the needs of students in suburban and rural areas as well.
“A major driver of these out-of-pocket expenses: Education spending has remained relatively flat in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, which means education funding hasn't kept up with inflation.” German Lopez of Vox.com reported.
According to a study by the National School Supply and Equipment Association, 92 percent of teachers spend their own money on classroom supplies, while 85 percent buy instructional materials for their students.
The NSSEA’s study also found that teachers are “the primary source of funding for classroom projects” and pay for 77 percent of classroom supplies. All this spending adds up to an estimated $1.6 billion a year nationwide.
“What other profession do you know where professionals have to use their own money to do their job properly?” Janet Fass, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers, said to ABC News. “Do engineers [or] accountants spend their own money? Why should teachers when they are far lower paid than other professionals?”
The burden of providing supplies for students falls heavier on the shoulders of elementary school teachers, whose students often require more materials such as crayons, construction paper and glue.
“There isn’t a real fairness between the funding that goes to secondary and elementary schools,” Tammy Phelts, who teaches second and third grade at a Salt Lake City suburban school, said. “I know that high schools have open stock rooms with stacks of paper, copy machines and other supplies, whereas elementary schools don’t. Teachers are given supplies for their classes at the beginning of the year and when it’s gone it’s gone.”
The NSSEA figures do not include how many educational professionals buy students’ breakfasts and lunches, while those in low-income areas are known to buy students coats, gloves and shoes.
According to NEA Today, a magazine published by the National Education Association, 6 percent of education assistance professionals, including bus drivers, custodians, lunchroom staff and secretaries, reach into their pockets to help kids in need, spending an average of $216 per employee per year.
This issue is perplexing for teachers when they crunch the numbers and see that the U.S. spends more money on education than any other country in the world. The U.S. government reports they spend just over $12,000 per student, which is added to state funds.
According to state financial reports, New York and Alaska are found at the high end of education budgeting, spending approximately $19,000 and $16,600 per student respectively. Utah and Idaho are found at the bottom, spending around $6,000 and $7,000, respectively. That leaves New York students with upwards of $31,000 on one end and Utah students with $18,000 each when combined with federal aid.
“I look at those numbers and think, ‘really?’” Phelts, who works in Utah, said. Phelts explained that even though the budget in Utah is small, she still doesn’t know where it goes and how it doesn’t trickle down better.
“I think the money is going to technology,” Kate Bird, a first grade teacher in Lehi, Utah, said. “But it isn’t evenly distributed. Some schools get an iPad for every student, some get one for every class, some are still waiting to get any.”
Utah and Idaho not only have the lowest education budgets in the nation, but also have more children per capita than any other state, with approximately 30 percent of Utah’s population and 27 percent of Idaho’s under 18 years old.
“I don’t think they value education here,” Bird said. “The money goes to what is valued, and here it’s beautifying parks, construction and supporting entrepreneurs. But they’re starting at the wrong end, if they would invest in their children, they’d have a better population.”
Because many teachers cannot rely on state and federal funds to cover their classroom needs, they are increasingly turning to third-party organizations to help organize fundraising.
A popular site is DonorsChoose.org, which is a fundraising platform that allows community members and charitable groups to see what specific teachers and schools need and choose a project to fund.
“Until the districts figure out how to better utilize the money coming in from the government, we’ll have to supplement the best we can,” Abigail Johnson, a third grade teacher in Boise, Idaho, said. “If that means using our own money, that’s what we’ll do.”