Out-of-pocket expenses are a reality for today's teachers

school supplies

*Editor's note: This story has been edited since its original publication


How much toilet paper do you bring to work?

Last year, Adopt-A-Classroom asked the 1.6 million people passing through Times Square this question through an electronic billboard. While most can laugh and simply answer “none,” the reality is startling for those selflessly shaping the minds of young people: One in three teachers had to buy toilet paper and other essentials for their classrooms this year, according to Adopt-A-Classroom.org.

“I would hate to think how much of my own money I have spent over the years,” said Kathryn Levine, education instructor at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD).

Levine is not alone. Out-of-pocket spending is a regretted, but accepted, reality for teachers everywhere. In fact, Adopt-A-Classroom found that 92 percent of teachers spent $450 of their own money on classroom supplies just this year without being reimbursed.

If we take the numbers from last year’s survey, Levine spent an estimated $13,000 during her 30 years of teaching. So how does it all add up?

Before coming to teach at UMD, Levine devoted her life, and wallet, to elementary education. She was a special education teacher at Grant Spanish Magnet School for 20 years. She also taught fourth grade for 9 years and spent one year teaching sixth grade.

Each year, Levine was given a budget of $250 for the entire school year. She would order the necessities: file folders, pencils, paper, erasers, etc., and the budget would barely cover it.

Due to a limited budget, it’s routine in many school districts for teachers to send out a list of classroom items for parents to purchase for their child.

“It becomes such a socioeconomic issue because at my school parents couldn’t afford to get gym shoes or markers,” Levine said. “So we would ‘beg, borrow and steal’ to have school supplies for kids who came with none.”

Some of those supplies would be donated, according to Levine. But for any sort of creative project that wasn’t a so-called “boxed curriculum,” she had no other option but to reach into her own pocket.

One year around Halloween, Levine wanted her students to each have a pumpkin so they could dig out the seeds to use for a math lesson. The students would predict how many seeds they thought were inside and then graph out the actual number they found.

“Where else was it going to come from? There’s no pot of money you could use during the year,” said Levine, who ended up just buying more than 20 pumpkins.

Barbara Schwanke, adjunct instructor in UMD’s education department and former first grade teacher for 33 years at John A. Johnson Elementary School and Minnehaha Elementary, found herself buying supplies so that all students would feel included. Students from poverty-stricken families couldn’t afford to bring a big box of crayons to school like classmates from more well-off families.

“Many times, just to make things fair, I would purchase the box of crayons so everyone was the same,” Schwanke said.

Today, Levine and Schwanke both teach in higher education. Although out-of-pocket expenses aren't a lecture point within their classrooms, their students are aware of what lies ahead.

“We already pay for crafts and stuff that we have to do now in school. It’s just a part of the major,” said Allie Hanson, a sophomore studying Integrated Elementary/Special Education (IESE) at UMD.

“We all know that’s our expectation. It’s just a part of it,” said Mariah Burau, a sophomore in the IESE program. “I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, and I just know that going into it, the expenses are inevitable.”

There are options for teachers – current and future – who find themselves regularly spending their own cash for their classroom.

Grants are a viable option for educators but require a lot of time and energy, according to Schwanke.

“If you’re a full-time teacher, especially in the lower grades, it’s not like you have a lot of extra time,” Schwanke said. “You can’t go to your students and say ‘go read that chapter so I can go work on a grant’ because they can’t read.”

Teachers can also file an Educator Expense deduction when filing annual taxes for deductions up to $250 ($500 if both spouses are educators) for qualified expenses, according the IRS website.

Members of the House of Representatives are looking to double this tax break for teachers and expand it so principals, aides and early childhood teachers can deduct out-of-pocket expenses as well.

“I really don’t believe teachers went into their profession thinking they were going to make a ton of money,” Schwanke said. “They went into their profession to make a difference in the lives of children and their futures.”

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