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‘I am a scavenger’: The desperate things teachers do to get the classroom supplies they need

Becky Cranson, like most educators, spends her own money on classroom supplies. That’s not all the Michigan teacher does to get what she needs for her school and students. (Kandice Kieliszewski)

(This post has been updated to include information on Michelle Obama’s visit to a school and a teacher’s lawsuit).

Like nearly all teachers in America, Becky Cranson spends her own money to buy supplies for her students. Working in a rural school district in Michigan, where 70 percent of her middle-school students come from low-income families, she shells out at least $1,000 a year for pencils, books, journals, glue sticks, tissues and much more.

But opening her wallet without reimbursement is only a small part of what she — and many others in America’s corps of 3.2 million teachers — do to secure classroom supplies they can’t get from their schools or from students’ families.

“I am a scavenger,” said Cranson, who teaches English at Bronson Jr./Sr. High School in Bronson, Mich. “My friend who works in the Michigan [Department of Natural Resources] office gives me their used binders, and my husband brings me furniture and supplies that the hospital he works at is throwing away.”

“I love my district and the families it serves,” Cranson said. “This is my 31st year, and I have many former students trusting me with their pride and joy. I refuse to let a family’s financial challenges be a stumbling block within the four walls of my classroom.”

The Washington Post asked teachers throughout the country how much they spend on supplies, what they buy and why. Teachers — mostly in public school districts but also in charter, private and Catholic schools — sent more than 1,200 emails to The Post from more than 35 states. The portrait that emerges is devastating — and reveals that the problem has existed, without remedy, for decades. And it has gotten worse over time. (You can find more responses here.)

‘In most professions, you steal office supplies from work to bring home. But teachers steal office supplies from home to bring to work.’

Federal data show that more than 9 in 10 educators spend an average of nearly $500 a year on supplies, but The Post review revealed that the problem is deeper, with teachers going to great lengths to secure resources for their classrooms.

Some say they “politely beg” friends and relatives for help, posting wish lists for benevolent strangers to fill on DonorsChoose and other websites. They hold fundraisers, scour garage sales, look for items at Goodwill stores. Some write grants and attend supply giveaways by companies that get tax benefits for being philanthropic.

Many depend on churches and parent associations and nonprofit groups, some of which set up ersatz stores with free supplies. In the Nashville area, teachers in several counties can shop for supplies at what they colloquially call the “Free Teacher Store,” operated by the charity Feed the Children. In Oregon, a nonprofit called Schoolhouse Supplies provides teachers with free materials.

“We are literally collecting pop tabs to recycle so we can buy more stuff,” said one high-school math department chair in Ohio. A California teacher said she takes “discarded things off the side of the road” if they are usable.

“I’m often bowled over by the fact that financiers and software engineers can show up to work expecting to have every supply they could possibly need,” said Jenna Lempesis, a New York public school teacher.

The vast majority of teachers who responded to The Post said they could not be identified by name or even district because they feared retaliation from bosses. One New England teacher spoke for many: “Please keep my name anonymous as I love teaching and would hate to face disciplinary action for simply being honest.”

They told similar stories about their search for supplies: paper and pencils and pens, erasers, markers and notebooks, tissue, furniture, books, menstrual pads, clothes, shoes, musical instruments, paint and clay, crayons, books, scissors, bulletin boards, food.

This year, Laura Estes-Swilley, who has taught English for 20 years in Florida’s Hillsborough County Public Schools, said she bought “the most unusual and disturbing” supplies: a magnetic curtain rod and blackout curtain in the event a shooter targeted her school.

“I also have toilet paper in case of extended lockdown and wasp spray for an intruder’s eyes” she said. “I am still looking for some affordable baseball bats to lock in my cabinet — also in case of intruder. My students need books, to be honest. But my money is on ‘protection’ first.”

In rural areas and big cities, in poor districts and even many wealthy ones, school budgets do not include enough money for supplies — and administrators and policymakers concede this has been baked into the funding process for decades.

“We should all be ashamed this has become the norm,” said Bob Farrace, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “We let policymakers off the hook too easily by accepting that charity is the only way to fill the gap.”

The time-sucking and sometimes soul-crushing process, teachers said, is one of the fundamental indignities they face. Asked to do the work of counselors, social workers, librarians, security officers and coaches, teachers earned on average 21.4 percent a week less than other comparably educated professionals in 2018, one study found. Yet they still are expected to buy supplies. Teachers said this issue reveals:

  • A basic lack of respect for America’s teachers, nearly 80 percent of whom are female. “Other professionals don’t do this,” said Michelle Eirhart, who teaches in the Montgomery County Public Schools, in the second-wealthiest county in Maryland. She gets many supplies from her school but not everything, so she visits a “store” set up by her union, stocked with free goods collected from teachers who no longer need them.
  • A disinvestment in public education. According to a May report from the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 22 states still provide less money for each student than before the Great Recession of 2008, when budgets were slashed nationwide. And federal figures show more teachers spending more money on supplies.
  • A dependence on donors. “I hate these articles about well-meaning people buying up peoples’ [wish] lists,” said Julia Wasson, an activist teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. “It normalizes this begging practice. If we properly funded schools and trusted teachers, we could stop seeing teachers beg online and restore their dignity.”

While the supply scramble is well-recognized in the education world, it has never been a big talking point in political campaigns or on the floors of legislatures. Teacher unions have sometimes turned to collective bargaining for help — and the supply crisis has figured in some of the teacher strikes spreading across the country. But nothing has changed the dynamic. Shannon Burgess, a teacher in South Carolina, is suing her district for failing to supply basic supplies but that case has just started.

Many teachers said they pay for supplies because families can’t.

“It feels absurd to ask a family to buy notebooks, markers and glue sticks when they’re struggling to afford basics like rent and food,” Lempesis said.

Even in well-off communities, schools don’t provide all necessary supplies to teachers — and parents don’t make up the entire difference.

Listen on Post Reports: ‘As a teacher, I am a total scavenger’

Some parents at Wilson High, in the wealthiest corner of Washington, said they were shocked recently at back-to-school night when they were asked to donate paper and art supplies. One art teacher said she might have to substitute coffee and tea for paint. D.C. schools spokesman Shayne Wells said: “Every year, DCPS provides $200 to each one of our teachers to offset the cost of instructional supplies. This was included in our agreement with the Washington Teachers’ Union that also provided our teachers with a 9 percent raise and one of the highest salaries in the country.”

The Post asked more than 30 principals and assistant principals, superintendents, school board leaders and legislators to discuss the problem. Most did not respond; those who did, including a Los Angeles Unified School District representative, largely blamed the lack of supplies on insufficient funding from their districts and states.

“I completely agree that teachers shouldn’t have to dip into their own pockets for school supplies,” said Jason Kamras, superintendent of the high-poverty Richmond Public Schools. “That’s why we give every teacher in Richmond a $150 Amazon card at the beginning of the school year to spend on their classrooms as they see fit. Of course, that doesn’t come close to covering all the costs teachers face, but it’s a first step toward addressing this issue.”

Asked why lawmakers don’t provide more money for schools, Virginia state Sen. Stephen D. Newman (R-Bedford), president pro tempore of the Senate, said the 2019 General Assembly significantly raised spending and provided localities with more flexible funds “to use for items such as school supplies.” He did not respond to a request for comment about a solution to the issue.

The Republican-led Virginia General Assembly increased K-12 funding in the 2019 legislative session, by about $50 million over the amount approved in 2018, but that was tens of millions of dollars less than requested by Gov. Ralph Northam (D). Even with that extra money, according to the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, Virginia will spend less on K-12 education than before the Great Recession. Meanwhile, for years, Virginia teachers have ranked near the bottom of states in salary.

Diana Dávila, president of the Houston Independent School District Board of Education, is a former teacher who said she understands “the frustration of not having basic supplies or books for our students.”

Even when school districts do have money for supplies, teachers say procurement and reimbursement can be onerous.

Chris Saulnier, an eighth-grade science teacher in Acushnet, Mass., said he spends up to $1,000 a year of his own money on supplies. If he wants supplies from the school system, he has to fill out a purchase order, get it approved by the principal, send it to the business manager, then wait for it to be accepted and shipped to school. “By the time the materials arrive, I would be past the point of doing the lesson,” he said. The reimbursement process is at least as complicated and can take longer than a month. Acushnet school officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Ariel Otto, who teaches in a rural Tennessee school with many students from low-income families, said she and her colleagues get $200 a year for classroom supplies.

“We don’t have access to that until late October to November,” she said.

The magnitude of the problem is sometimes shrouded by good-news stories splashed in the media when a company offers teachers discounts or gives away supplies — or when a celebrity offers help.

Sarah Sims, a teacher in Georgia, is one of the lucky recipients of such philanthropy. On the first Friday of October, Sims was the star of actress Kristen Bell’s weekly “FeaturedTeacherFriday” Instagram post. “Meet Sarah Sims!” Bell wrote. “Her students are deaf and hard of hearing and she buys most of her school supplies herself.”

Sims, who teaches at the public Atlanta Area School for the Deaf, pleaded to Bell’s more than 11 million followers to help fulfill her Amazon wish list, including books, dry erase markers, paint, blocks, glue, girls’ shorts and sweatpants, crackers and breakfast bars, and a chair. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

And in December, former first lady Michelle Obama walked into a D.C. elementary school with a case filled with $100,000 — a gift from entertainer Ellen DeGeneres — and said, “We hope this will make sure that you will not have to go into your pockets any longer for these kids because we know how amazing you guys are.”

But most teachers don’t get help from celebrities such as DeGeneres and Bell, who said in an interview she has received thousands of requests from educators.

Teachers can write off up to $250 a year for supplies they buy, according to an Internal Revenue Service spokesman. Republican leaders in Congress had sought to eliminate the Educator Expense Deduction in 2017 but did not succeed.

The deduction helps — but not enough, educators say. Resource teacher Fred Gamble Jr., who works in Prince George’s County in Maryland, said: “A 25-year veteran, I have probably invested one year’s salary on supplies for my classroom!”

Kathryn Vaughn, an elementary school teacher in rural Tennessee north of Memphis, said her district provides her with $200 a year for supplies and two boxes of copy paper to teach visual arts to about 800 students from low-income families.

“I work several additional jobs to help supplement my classroom budget, pay back my $50,000 in student loans and support my combat veteran husband,” she said. “My school allows me to ask families for an optional $5 per child art donation but in the poor, rural South, our hard-working families simply don’t have a lot to give.”

Teachers, including Summer Schultz in Richmond, turn to strangers, often through crowdsourcing websites. Schultz teaches high school science but has no dedicated budget for science supplies. She spends hundreds of dollars of her own money each year and posts her wish list on the DonorsChoose website.

There’s also Teachers Pay Teachers, an online marketplace for educators to buy and sell educational materials. A Facebook group started in July called Support a Teacher, on which teachers publish their Amazon supply wish lists for donors to fulfill, already has more than 48,000 members. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)

Cranson, in Michigan, remembered when she once learned that a sixth-grade boy was failing physical education. Living with his father in a shed, he had no access to a washing machine and often came to school with no underwear, so he never changed into gym clothes. During her planning period, she ran to a store and purchased 12 pairs of underwear, socks, two shirts and two sweatpants.

“The family still struggled to keep clothes clean,” she said, “but the boy was able to participate much more often in gym class, which also helped him to be happier at school. It just happened to be my birthday so I called this ‘my birthday present to myself.’ ”