Thomas Courtney, a veteran fifth-grade Title I teacher in San Diego, gets $350 from his district to purchase school supplies each year. But like too many educators across the country, he often spends his own money to buy what his students need to be successful.

In a recent article for Education Week, Courtney, who was selected as one of the San Diego Unified School District Teachers of the Year in 2021, imagined what it would be like if his annual stipend was increased dramatically—an exercise that doesn’t have to be a fantasy, at least this year, as school districts across the country reap billions of federal Covid relief dollars.

“Imagine a classroom filled to the brim with the raw materials you want your children to have. Imagine a class where the teacher and the students get what they need because your tax dollars finally go to the person best suited to purchase it for them. That’s the kind of learning environment I want for my students,” Courtney writes.

According to surveys in 2018 and 2021 from the organization Adopt A Classroom, teachers across the country have an average annual classroom budget of $212—it’s rarely enough to cover basic supplies like paper, printer ink, pencils, and notebooks—and end up spending about $750 of their own cash to make up for the gap.

Covid-19 added more costs for teachers in the form of cleaning supplies, sanitizer, and protective equipment. Although K-12 teachers can deduct $250 in out-of-pocket expenses annually from their federal tax return, that break often does not help close the gap in their expenses.

Educator Ryan Knight told the National Education Association that he budgets $1,000 each year for classroom expenses—far exceeding the $75 he is allowed to request from his school. Aside from basic supplies, his budget also includes additional expenses that are often overlooked: educational posters, computer software subscriptions, cloud storage, study tools, and other online resources.

Meanwhile, K-12 schools received $122 billion from Congress in Covid relief funds in 2021. Courtney says that as school districts look to spend the money, they should consider providing some directly to teachers.

For his part, Courtney envisioned what it would be like if he were to get $3000 annually, roughly 10 times the budget he currently has:

  • $600—to buy books for students that would allow them to keep up with the “latest trend-setting reads.” According to Courtney, providing students with “motivating, engaging, and high-quality literature” should be the foundation of any elementary school classroom.
  • $600—on school supplies, from glue to construction paper, and pencils. Supplies “keep my classroom standards and expectations high,” Courtney writes. “When a classroom has the right core materials and media to work with, students have the potential to create high-quality work.”
  • $600—on “rich curriculum” that Courtney would tailor to fit his students’ needs and share with grade-level peers. He writes he’d also supplement that curriculum with items to take his lessons to the next level, like costumes for readers theater and plenty of supplies for his science cabinet.
  • $600—to host events that bring parents, community members, students, and staff together. “The reality is that making inroads into the community I serve is only possible with a reasonable amount of money,” Courtney writes. His vision includes telescopes as prizes for a yearly Star Night and Science Fair, ice cream for the Malcolm X Library and Ice Cream Night, and food for an end-of-year barbecue.

The money would make a real difference, and be placed in the hands of the most knowledgeable constituent in the school system: the classroom teacher. That would allow educators like Courtney to “plan fabulous lessons and buy materials that stimulate minds and activate engagement—the very types of things that bring social-emotional and rich academic learning to life.”

What would you spend the money on?

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