by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Stories about school supplies are a common feature of back-to-school reporting, and nearly all mention that teachers spend their own money to cover classroom necessities. Uncritical consumers of these stories will reason that if teachers were forced to buy classroom essentials, then it must mean that schools do not have the money to pay for them. This misperception is a feature, not a bug.
The transformation of teacher expenditure narratives
News stories about teachers using their own money for school-related items began appearing in the 1950s. In 1959, for example, the Newport News, Virginia newspaper Daily Press reported that area teachers spent between $25 and $50 of their own money on school supplies and instructional materials. During this time, out-of-pocket expenditures reflected the teacher’s commitment to their students rather than an indictment of the system. “This does not mean that the schools are negligent,” the article declared, “It just means that these teachers are far from perfunctory about the conduct of their classes.”
The tone began to change in the 1970s, as teacher unions began citing teacher expenditures to influence school district budget deliberations. A Daily Press article published in 1976 described a school board meeting featuring ten members of the Hampton Education Association who claimed that 96% of the teachers in the district spent their own money for “such classroom needs as file cabinets, chairs, books and paper.” Despite their complaints, the school board approved the district budget for the subsequent school year.
The purpose of these articles has not changed since teacher unions began politicizing the issue in the 1970s. Stories about teacher expenditures are designed to propagate long-standing myths about the adequacy of public school funding systems. Look no further than Vice President Kamala Harris’ speech before the National Education Association Annual Meeting last month. Harris declared, “We are determined to fight for a future where you never again have to spend your own money on school supplies to meet your students’ needs.” The line garnered applause from the union faithful, excited at the prospect of federal subsidies for cute bulletin-board borders.
Estimates of out-of-pocket spending are incomplete or unreliable
Estimates of teacher expenditures vary, but most fall into the range of $500 to $1,000 per year. Unfortunately, most of these studies derive their estimates from unscientific surveys soliciting unverifiable or self-reported information.
The most reliable study comes from the National Center for Education Statistics, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. The average unreimbursed expenditure among teachers participating in the 2015–16 National Teacher and Principal Survey was $478 per year. While the report disaggregates expenditures by school and teacher characteristics, researchers failed to include survey questions that would offer insight into the types of purchases. As a result, it does not differentiate between necessities and frills such as décor or novelty items.
Since 2015, AdoptAClassroom.org has published one of the more popular surveys of teacher spending. The 2021 edition of the study concluded that the average out-of-pocket expenditure on school supplies reached an average of $750 in 2021. Overall, 80% of the 5,400 respondents claimed they lacked basic school supplies. While the sample appeared adequate, the website failed to provide details of the study’s methodology or the survey instrument used to obtain its findings.
Another popular survey is the 2022 Teacher Spending Study on Savings.com. The Teacher Spending Study is an online survey with a sample size of just 210 teachers. As flawed as it is, the study does what few others do: categorize teacher expenditures. Of the $560 the average teacher will spend this year, according to the survey, they will use only $78 for pencils, paper, and tissues. Prizes, snacks, décor, cleaning supplies, and instructional resources make up the rest. Indeed, not all expenditures are created equal. What teachers buy is often more important than how much they spend.
Policymakers and the public should be concerned when fiscal mismanagement or misplaced priorities produce supply shortages so severe that educators must use their own money to purchase classroom basics. In these cases, the proper policy response is to scrutinize the use (or misuse) of existing dollars rather than rush to extract more money from taxpayers.