Out of pocket

From Harper‘s Index.

Percentage of public-school teachers who spent their own money on school supplies during the past academic year : 99.5

Average amount they spent : $485

About Joanne


  1. I would question whether they are being strict about what they define as school supplies. Are they all educationally-related or are they including amounts they’ve laid out for gifts to the students? While I’m grateful for the sweet gifts given to my little ones by their teachers, I wouldn’t call those “school supplies”, per se. Also, I’d hesitate to put most teacher-bought decorations in the category of school supplies, but perhaps the teachers do include them?

  2. Define school supply, please?

    My children have never received any school supplies paid for by a teacher. I spend each year on required novels and textbooks&tuition for Dual Enrollment courses. Next year I get to pay for online courses since DE has been slashed and my kid isn’t interested in Child Care or Nutrition.

  3. palisadesk says:

    This doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. In every school I’ve worked for the past 15 years (all low SES schools), I’ve paid for nearly all my school supplies, including instructional materials, textbooks, notebooks for the students, pencils, erasers, even (in the early days) computers. Not to mention, every book the children could read, every map or atlas, every dictionary was one I purchased. And my colleagues had to do variations of the same, or make do with writing on the board and have children copy all day, because there were few materials to work with.

    Now this is not true everywhere of course. People I know who teach in high-SES schools tell me that they only have to snap their fingers to get class sets of expensive texts, new furniture, laser printers, document cameras and whatnot. Those folks don’t have to spend anything on school materials, although most buy presents and treats for the kids — these are NOT “school supplies.”

    I always suggested to our union that the most effective “work to rule” we could ever pull off would be to have one in which the teachers removed all their personal property from the classrooms. In some schools I have been in, there would be almost nothing left. However, the union doesn’t agree and doesn’t approve of our buying stuff. So much for them.

    So when you average the people who don’t need to buy anything with those who need to buy a lot, $500/year is a reasonable average (it corresponds to the studies I’m familiar with, some local, some more regional or national. These were for elementary, not secondary). On most of my teacher listservs, members report similar levels of personal investment in materials. One simply cannot depend on the employer to provide the needed resources.

    I consider the money I spend (well beyond any $500/year) to be an investment in my own job satisfaction and effectiveness. Finding myself in a school where I was presented with a class of academically nonfunctional pre-adolescents with not even pencil and paper, let alone books or a library, I figured I needed to get my own supplies and instructional programs and have never looked back. I have enough effective materials at all grade levels to teach pretty well any students successfully. It was money well spent.

    However, it’s not realistic to expect all teachers to do this; for one thing, they have families of their own in many cases (lucky for me, I do not).

    • lgm, how are you so certain that your student never received school supplies purchased by a teacher? You seems really definite about it, and I wouldn’t think that the average kid or parent would know who purchased what once it was in the classroom. I’m just curious how you can know for sure.

      Occasionally, I do have kids who travel with their own little staplers, tape dispensers, paper clips, etc, but most kids use what’s in my classroom whenever they need to. (This is fine with me and it’s made available to them for this purpose. 75% of it is purchased by my department rather than by me personally.)

      I’ve also purchased class sets of novels occasionally in Dover Thrift editions. My students don’t know that they don’t belong to the school, so it seems unlikely that their parents would.

      I’m in a high SES school, and most of what I choose to buy is luxury stuff that I don’t really need, but I just want or find more convenient to buy on my own rather than wait for a school copy. I too see it as an investment in my own satisfaction.

      • ndc, our classrooms don’t work like yours. I’m in an average needs district, about thirty percent poverty. Teachers don’t supply staples, tape, paper clips, pencils, paper, pens, notebooks, binders etc. Most of that is given to poor students via a charity program, everyone else is to supply their own child. Some of it is bought by the district (staples, construction paper) and the teachers get a yearly allotment to use as they please. Students that are not supplied by their parents or the charity fund either do without or collect from what’s been discarded by other students. Tissue boxes and sneakers are sent in by parents in the elementary. Snacks for kinders that don’t have one are sent in by the wealthier parents or funded by the PTA. The PTA gives each teacher about $150/year to use as they please on classroom equipment that the district would not fund. I am in an average needs district.

        Textbooks are considered a supplement here. Most courses do not have textbooks, until the CC level. Those texts are purchased by the student or given by a charity fund. Right now, my high schooler has 8 courses. He has two textbooks. APUSH – paid for by the school district – and a CC Math course text paid for by me. His lit books from the summer are paid for by me, the ones used during the school year are paid for by the school.

        How do I know? I have children that attend public school. I know what I sent them in with, what they came home with, and how much I am paying in course materials. Parents pay for copies when instructors go over their allotment (see Miller Smith’s comment below) or they pay for phone to take a photo of the material that the student was supposed to spend twenty minutes copying from the board. Parents pay for Regent’s Review Books ordered and distributed by the instructor. I have friends and neighbors that are teachers. They are very good at grant writing and finding what they need without it coming out of their own pocket.

        The two teachers my children have that spent their own money spent it on laptops and internet access. This is very common now in the work world…people being unhappy with the IT available at work and using their own. I had to give my kid a data plan so he could do his science homework..it was all online, but the study hall had no computer for him to access it.

    • That’s terrible that you have to purchase so much on your own. Where is the money going instead? Our country is a huge spender on education (http://rossieronline.usc.edu/u-s-education-versus-the-world-infographic/), but our teachers are having to buy their own textbooks?!

      • In this area, that money is going in to transportation costs and staff compensation. The annual grid raise rate is always above inflation.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    Low SES schools are not necessarily poorly-funded schools. See, for example, Newark, Camden, Detroit, relative to national averages and the middle ‘burbs.
    Question would be more on point if the teachers who were buying stuff were in the well-funded districts like, say, Newark.

  5. The footnote puts the source of this factoid as the “National School Supply and Equipment Association”. I’d like to know more about the methodology they used to gather the information.

  6. Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:

    Let’s see… 9 months in a school year.
    $500, let’s say, divided by 9…
    that’s like $55 a month.
    Divided by four weeks….
    that’s like 14 dollars a week, plus you get summers off from this punitive tax.


    So what?

    • Thinly Veiled Anonymity said, “So what?”

      Summers off are days we are not paid. We are paid for the 190 days during the school year.

      I quit buying paper for the school copy machine when we run out here in Prince George’s County, Maryland. I used to buy cases from Costco so I could give my students the school system required handouts. Now with pay cuts and major tax increases the kids can just go without. If the county can’t provide basic supplies then I’ll be damned if I will pull another dime out of my pocket.

      Thinly Veiled Anonymity, when you child comes home telling you she spent the entire class period copying the lab directions off the board for the next class day and you call up to tell me that I should not waste precious class time on such an activity I will say to you, “On your way here to school drop by Costco and pick up a case of paper and drop it off in my class.” And when you say, “That’s not my responsibility to provide class materials,” I will say,”It’s not mine either…and I’ll hang up.

      Get it?

      • Oh Miller, who do you think you’ll convince with that “paid for 190 days” line? Pretty much everyone who frequents this site is familiar with the fact that teachers are quite well paid on an annualized basis so that three months off is a gift. Heck, all the teachers I know anticipate summer vacation with at least as much excitement as the kids.

        And I do get it although you don’t seem to have.

        You did something virtuous, for your own reasons and with no expectation of compensation other then internally, and now you’re cashing in on that action. A decent act is thus rendered tawdry.

        • Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:

          I don’t always agree with allen, but when I do, I prefer to hear the word “tawdry.”

  7. Ted Craig says:

    From the IRS website:

    “If you are an eligible educator, you can deduct up to $250 ($500 if married filing joint and both spouses are educators, but not more than $250 each) of any unreimbursed expenses [otherwise deductible as a trade or business expense] you paid or incurred for books, supplies, computer equipment (including related software and services), other equipment, and supplementary materials that you use in the classroom. For courses in health and physical education, expenses for supplies are qualified expenses only if they are related to athletics. ”

    That still leaves $235, but still…

  8. stopthewhining says:

    I make a decent living and probably spend $1000-1500 in unreimbursed expenses from my employer. I’m not opposed to tossing my own skin in the game when I believe it will enhance the customer experience.

    If it is a question of basic supplies, then one has to ask where the money is going if not to the basics?

  9. The number seems a little odd. You can buy a crapload of “school supplies” for $485. On the other hand, if you’re buying books or educational games, that’s about one project per year.

    I kick in about $200-300 per year to classroom projects (via Donors Choose) and I’m not a teacher and have no kids in school, so that doesn’t seem like so much for someone who is a teacher. I spend more than that on my own work-related materials every year (mostly books, but also computer peripherals, training and office supplies).