Paper and pencils

Shelby County teachers are given $100 for classroom supplies. But that’s not nearly enough.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

For Crescent Bynum, a culinary arts instructor at Hamilton High School, the $100 she receives from Shelby County Schools at the start of the year buys some pencils and paper.

It doesn’t buy cleaning supplies for her kitchen classroom. It doesn’t buy extra food to prepare when her class runs out. It doesn’t buy chef coats for students who can’t afford to pay for them. Bynum pays for all of that out of her own pocket.

“It’s just the way it is that inner-city school teachers spend more than others because of (lack of) parent participation,” Bynum said. “We don’t receive many of the supplies we need from parents or the district, so we buy it. You know you’re not going to be reimbursed. But if you need something, do you sit back and go without? You go get what you need to teach.”

Bynum is typical of public school teachers in her Memphis district — and across the nation. Most dig into their personal resources to pay for classroom supplies and to help students with their needs.

To help address the gap, the Memphis district on Friday unveiled its Teacher Tool Box, a supplies depot where teachers at high-need schools can obtain free supplies starting next month. The resource is housed at the district’s central offices at 160 S. Hollywood St., and teachers must make appointments to visit. Priority will be given to teachers who work in priority schools, which are the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in Tennessee in terms of academic achievement.

“While visiting more than 100 classrooms last year, I had teachers tell me they needed more school supplies — that what they need often comes out of their pocket,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said at Friday’s ribbon-cutting event.

Teachers, we want to know how much you spend on your classroom. Answer a quick poll here:

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The United Education Association, an affiliate of the Tennessee Education Association, also hosted a “teacher survival store” in July in Memphis, inviting new teachers to use monopoly money distributed at training events to purchase supplies. The idea was to ease the burden on new teachers tho want to “look like you have everything you need, even before you’ve had a paycheck,” said Tikeila Rucker, a Shelby County teacher and TEA affiliate leader.

Shelby County Schools allocates $100 to teachers for individual school supplies at the start of the year. Special education teachers are given a little more, and for some schools, an additional $100 gets pooled by grade level or department. That’s a far cry from what’s recommended per student for materials and supplies under Tennessee’s formula for allocating money to districts, called the Basic Education Program, or BEP. The BEP recommends $74.25 per student for classroom supplies, which calculates to $1,485 for a classroom of 20.

In Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, the state’s second largest district behind Shelby County Schools, the district allocates $200 per teacher for basic education supplies. Each school receives another $100 per teacher for supplies — to be pooled and spent as the faculty and principal choose.

The BEP is a spending formula designed to calculate the cost of educating students; it doesn’t actually determine how districts spend their state funding. For cash-strapped school systems such as Shelby County Schools, money allotted for supplies often goes toward other necessities, leaving teachers to pick up the slack. Many say they spend anywhere from $400 to $1,000 of their own money every year on classroom needs.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson joins school board members and teachers to unveil the district's new Teacher Tool Box.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson (center) joins school board members and teachers to unveil the district’s new Teacher Tool Box.

Nationally, teachers spent $1.6 billion of their own money on school and instructional supplies in the 2012-2013 school year, according to the most recent survey on the subject by the National School Supply and Equipment Association, now called the Education Market Association.

The survey found that 99.5 percent of teachers reported spending in order to do their work. On average, teachers spent a total of $945 on classroom materials, with 10 percent spending more than $1,000 per year.

Nikki Wilks, an English teacher at Memphis Kingsbury High School, said she spent more than $1,000 on supplies during her first year of teaching, and more than $500 in each subsequent year.

“I never feel like I’m just spending money frivolously, because I’m told I can’t turn a student away if they don’t have paper and pencil,” Wilks said. “I want to do projects, but I work at a Title I school, and I can’t tell students that they have to buy a certain book for class. If I’m not buying it, where are my kids going to find it?”

How to help

Teachers are increasingly turning to crowdsourcing sites on social media to help stock their classrooms.

You can search by location at and lets you sort by schools of “highest poverty level,” or schools where more than 65 percent of students are on free or reduced-price lunch.

Parents and school alumni also can make gifts. Wilks said teachers at Kingsbury High posted their supply list on the school’s Facebook page and have been surprised by the response from alumni.

Reporter Grace Tatter contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to say that the United Education Association hosted a teacher survival store. A previous version incorrectly stated that the Tennessee Education Association ran the store. The United Education Association is an affiliate of the Tennessee Education Association.

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.