Public schools have faced a decreasing budget for more than a decade. Yet, the effects are not always obvious to the outside observer. Teachers rush in to fill the holes as quickly as they are created, sometimes asking for help from the parents and community. Unfortunately, these holes are forming faster and faster. After years of teacher pay being stagnated by the Qualified Economic Offer (QEO) under Governor Thompson, followed by a new decrease in take home pay under Governor Walker’s Act 10, the teaching profession has taken a hit. Will teachers be able to continue donating enough time, money, and resources to make up for budgetary deficits?
Benjamin Franklin warned a young tradesman, “Time is money.” Critics of public education are quick to point out that teachers get their summers off. This is a half-truth. Many of these summer hours are spent gathering new materials, taking classes to improve instruction, teaching summer school, working a second job to stay afloat, reading children’s and professional literature, preparing the classroom for a new year, modifying curriculum to meet the needs of special education students, or dreaming up new ways to reach students. In fact, if you talk to a teacher lucky enough to have gone on vacation, she will more than likely show you the items she brought back to share with her students and explain how they connect to the classroom curriculum. The truth of the matter – the best teachers never stop teaching.
For the past six years, I have taken time out of my summer to organize our annual school picnic. As a school, we host this yearly event in a park that is in the heart of low-income rental units where many of our families live. Organizing includes reaching out to area businesses for donations, gathering supplies, recruiting volunteers, inviting the school community, planning recreation, and preparing the park for our arrival. Other staff members at Sennett volunteered hours over the summer selling concessions to pay for our annual camping trip to Upham Woods, where students learn from outdoor, educational experiences.
It isn’t just time that teachers donate during their summer. As teachers prepare to dive into a new school year, they also plunge into their pocket books. On the average, teachers spend $485 on their classrooms annually. Ten percent of teachers report that they spend more than $1,000. Schenk Elementary School teacher, Leslie Walsh is among this ten percent.
Walsh states that she does what many teachers do. She gives healthy food to hungry kids, buys school supplies, and pays for field trips. In addition, she has created a classroom fundraiser for field trips that involves buying paper to print note cards that feature students’ art work. She prints these note cards and envelopes from home and sells them to generate funds for field trips. “I want to be generous and do anything I can to support students. I see what a difference these actions make every day and it is more than worth it,” Walsh explains.
First year teachers can be expected to set up an unequipped classroom on as little as $50. This is the amount that academic teachers receive at Sennett Middle School. Over the summer, I was approached by a new teacher who wanted to know where the supply closet was, because she needed a stapler for her classroom. When I explained that there was not a supply room and that she could use a requisition form to order $50 worth of supplies, her eyes grew wide. When she realized that she was further limited by being required to place this order from an overpriced catalog, her shock increased. I quickly explained to her that when her $50 was exhausted that she should look for deals at “Back to School” sales. Relief took over her face as she inquired about reimbursement. With a solemn shake of my head, I welcomed her to the world of an underfunded, public education.
Special Education Assistants (SEAs) like Jackie Saad, also rush in to fill the needs of our students. Saad spends about $150 at the start of the school year for supplies and snacks for students. Throughout the year, she continues to buy pencils, pens, and notebooks when supplies run out. Saad also volunteers eight to ten hours of her time to help teachers set up their classrooms. The contributions of our Special Education Assistants carry extra weight, considering their starting base wage is $13 per hour and that this rate increases to only $15.95 after seven years.
Poverty also plays a part in the increasing need for school staff to increase personal contributions. Many of our students come to school empty handed. Teachers recognize the stressed look on students when they don’t have the required supplies and they discreetly find ways to fill that void and ease their tension. Schools with students experiencing homelessness come up with creative ways to help out, such as creating a community closet, where staff donate clothing, food items, formula, and toiletries to families in need. Special education students with significant needs may need a change of clothes or access to a washing machine within the school day. School staff shop at thrift shops or browse Craig’s list when a family is not able to provide this extra clothing. Teachers have learned to repair items, utilize duct tape, and find innovative solutions to a lack of supplies. One high school teacher even used the proceeds from a summer garage sale to buy scientific calculators for her class.
Parents too have felt the pinch of a decreasing school budget. Some student supply lists now contain items to stock the classroom, such as Clorox wipes, dry erase markers, Kleenex, reams of copy paper, and even Band Aids. Elementary school parents are frequently asked to bring in snacks for the classroom. With unemployment on the rise, jobs that do not pay livable wages, and less take home pay for public sector workers, many parents are struggling to fill this additional need. In schools with a high percentage of low-income students, supply lists are set aside for rent or groceries.
Schools cannot be expected to base their survival on donations and volunteerism. Teachers, parents, and the community can provide Band-Aids, but this is neither a complete nor enduring solution. Education has been and will continue to be the cornerstone of our democracy, but to maximize its potential, we must first make a genuine investment in our public schools.