What Your Back-To-School List Reveals About Our Underfunded Schools

Jeff Bryant

“You can exhale now,” the headline in Salon reassures, because “kids have more money than ever to spend on school stuff this year.”

The reason for Salon’s celebratory tone is that a national survey every year by the National Retail Federation finds that preteens preparing for a new school year have a record-breaking average of $80.31 in personal spending money. The author leaps from that nugget of information to conclude this is a sign of a stronger economy ahead. (Disclosure: I’ve written about education for Salon.)

But even if Salon’s analysis makes you breathe easier about the economy, you should understand those school kids aren’t going to keep their cash for very long, because their schools are going to need it.

Indeed, back to school supply lists are likely longer than ever before due to the simple reason that schools increasingly don’t have the funds to pay for items on the list. And because of persistently inadequate budgets that continue to dog our schools, you can be sure the longer your shopping list, the worse the funding situation is throughout your child’s school system.

Not only are school stockrooms increasingly bare of supplies, but teachers aren’t being adequately paid, class sizes are ballooning, programs are being cut and school buildings increasingly forego required maintenance.

In states like North Carolina – where schools still get less funding than they did in 2008, despite an improving economy – money for necessary school supplies continues to be inadequate.

In the News & Observer, a local paper based in Raleigh, N.C., a first-grade teacher explains how the allotment for supplies she and her colleagues receive has gone from $100 per student “over a decade ago” to zero. The shortfall is especially harmful to her school where 70 percent of students are from low-income households that qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. “Some are even homeless,” she says.

Across the state in Asheville, a local reporter explains how in that district’s schools the allocation for classroom supplies dropped from $215,530 in 2007-08 to an expected $136,802 in the upcoming school year. That smaller allocation comes as the number of students grew from 3,800 to an expected 4,500.

An op-ed in the Raleigh paper explains the cause of the problem: State budget allocations for school supplies are less than half of what they should be based on a comparison to funding levels in 2007-08, adjusted for inflation.

The problem is nationwide. According to the most recent calculation of what it costs for a typical family to begin the school year – the Backpack Index compiled by Huntington bank – since 2007, “the cost of supplies and extracurricular activities has increased 85 percent for elementary school students, 78 percent for middle school students, and 57 percent for high school students.”

Yet many states, over the same time period, continue to fund schools less.

Consequently, teachers are having to beg families for money and dig deeper into their own pockets to purchase items their classrooms need just to function properly. A survey of schoolteachers in 2016 finds the average teacher spends $487 in personal money for their classrooms, mostly for school supplies and learning materials.

Much like in North Carolina, an Oklahoma newspaper describes the problem teachers have with outfitting their classrooms. The reporter sources much of the blame to budget cutbacks passed down from the state to districts. Some districts have eliminated school supply funding altogether.

In some school districts in Michigan, funding for classroom supplies has been cut so much teachers resort to crowd funding for basics such as pencils and paper.

A federal tax deduction of $250 softens the blow somewhat, but teachers often have to pay more for supplies even as their wages slide further down the ladder of fair compensation. A recent report from the Economic Policy Institute finds the gap between what teachers get paid compared to comparably educated workers has gone from 5.5 percent in 1979 to 17 percent in 2015. Even with other benefits thrown into the calculation, teachers’ pay doesn’t come anywhere close to other professions.

But the lack of funding for basic school supplies is just the most obvious sign of America’s growing and deepening crisis in education funding.

In Oklahoma, for instance, the shortfalls go beyond supply shortages to staff cuts, closing libraries, reducing arts instruction and charging fees for extracurricular activities.

A recent article in The New York Times reported on the inadequate school-funding situation in Kansas where “in poorer districts like Kansas City and Wichita, students are crammed into deteriorating buildings with bloated class sizes. One district in southeast Kansas, facing a budget shortfall, recently pared its school week to four days.” Many school in the state had to close their doors early last school year due to inadequate funding. Although the most recent state budget includes a compromise to comply with a court ruling, the measure likely still fails to provide an adequate level of resources for schools.

In Illinois, the most recent budget deal still left many school districts far short of the funding they need. The budget prompted a letter from a group of district superintendents arguing the budget was so inadequate “many schools won’t open their doors in the fall,” according to a local news outlet. The lack of spending has already caused schools around the state to trim PE classes, even though state law requires them.

The state’s inadequate funding levels hit Chicago schools the hardest, where the district recently announced budget cuts of $232 million and layoffs of over 1,000 employees including over 500 teachers.

In Pennsylvania, a recent budget compromise left many of the state’s schools still below adequate funding. Increases that managed to get retained through the negotiations do not address increased costs of rising health care and pension costs and the growing burden of charter school costs to public schools districts, according to school administrators across the state.

In Michigan, school administrators in Detroit are concerned there isn’t enough funding coming from the state to ensure there is a teacher in every classroom. Utah seems to have found a workaround for that problem: To keep spending levels low, the state now allows schools to hire teachers who don’t have any training.

Sometimes school budget inadequacies manifest themselves in other ways that are visibly obvious in the conditions of classrooms and buildings. Across South Florida, for instance, schools are plagued with mold, leaky roofs, broken air conditioners, and crumbling walls and floors.

If the school your child attends happens to appear to be adequately funded, please do not assume all others in your community are. In many places, school resources are not shared equitably, and money can be, and often is, diverted from under-resourced schools to benefit the pet projects of policy makers.

The whole fiasco makes you wonder what the endpoint is. How long can we continue to withhold adequate funding from schools, and how bad would school conditions have to get to warrant a change in direction?

Perhaps a news item out of Omaha, Nebraska helps answer those questions (hat tip, Jeff Tiedrich). According to the report, the city faced a multimillion-dollar backlog of road repairs and was being inundated with complaints from some neighborhoods about potholes in their poorly constructed roads. The solution thrifty city leaders put into place? Bulldoze the pothole-filled streets and turn them back into dirt roads.

That sort of radical response to decaying infrastructure is not that different from the decisions our lawmakers are making to withhold adequate funding from schools and find other workarounds instead. The ever-lengthening list of back-to-school supplies parents are getting is just another sign of that.

Mudflaps anyone?

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