California Teachers Buy Supplies and Clean Classrooms

In the wake of draconian budget cuts over the past two years, California teachers are digging deep into their own pocketbooks for everything from pencils and paper to cleaning products. This altruism is born out of desperate need. The state has cut $17 billion from education funding and plans an additional $2.4 billion in cuts this school year. A growing sense of frustration and anger bubbles underneath the surface as teachers in the state are being forced to take week-long unpaid furloughs, on top of pay cuts of 3% this year, and are tacitly expected to supply their classrooms from their reduced paychecks.

Out of Pocket Expenses

Teachers report their out-of-pocket spending for supplies is growing with the average being $1500 a calendar year. The items purchased extend beyond necessities for educating students. Many report they clean their own classrooms now and do most of the basic upkeep on furniture like desks. They garage sale for white boards and beg local businesses for pens for their students to use.

Although this is not historically unusual, it’s an increasing phenomena which comes at a time when the teacher profession is under attack. And it’s fueling discontent in teachers’ lounges all across America at a time when reformists need the cooperation and enthusiasm of those in the trenches.

The Importance of Duct Tape

During my last five years as a classroom teacher, I become a minor handy person of sorts. Most of the teachers’ desks and nearly all of the cabinets and closets in the buildings I worked had locks that either didn’t work, or the keys were long ago lost. In order to secure equipment, or even my own purse, I became adept at removing and replacing these antique locks.

Home Depot enjoyed a profitable relationship with me as I replaced not only locks, but window cranks. I repaired shelves and discovered that duct tape truly is a miracle.

In addition, I scavenged for writing utensils, paper, notebooks, paperbacks, and did a daily trade in healthy snack food for my more needy students.

And at the time of my largesse, I was a widow with a small child and a very tight budget.

Money Matters

Teachers all over the United States are feeding, clothing, supplying educational materials and supplementing under funded or vanished budgets. They do this quietly and without much thought. Teachers know going in that there will be out of pocket expenditures and most consider it something that’s for the good of “their kids/students”. 

Shifting the Budget Burden

But how many other professions are expected to spot their employers where the basic tools of their trade are concerned?

Education reformers claim that money cannot solve the “crisis” in our classrooms, but can teachers really be expected to raise test scores or improve graduation rates when there’s no money for the most basic of classroom supplies?

Share Your Thoughts and Stories

Every year the supply list that parents are asked to shop for grows longer, even as teachers are expected to dig deep in their own budgets to make up the differences.

Is public education truly accessible if the government isn’t maintaining the buildings or providing the necessary supplies? What’s going on in your area?


photo credit: School supply mountain by Evelyn Giggles


Susan P.
Susan Price7 years ago

To Diana S - "Now the unions run the pension programs, always tacking on huge admin and maintenance fees, and teachers have to buy their own supplies." Where do you live? I worked for 32 years in Philadelphia - a union town. My union didn't run my pension. The state ran my penion. They contribute 1/3 of the funds, my district 1/3 and I contribute 1/3. I don't know what other state workers contribute as to percentage but state runs the retirement!

Yes, my union dues did pay the salary of the union officials - a whole 1% of my salary! Our schools don't pay their salaries. What do they do? Besides seeing that the terms of the contract are followed - they negotiate health benefits with health care providers, with drug companies, etc.

You want to know about personal responsibility? We couldn't keep a student for more than 15 minute without notifying the parent they were staying. NO they aren't taught that no means no, that if it isn't yours, ask before you touch it, clean up after yourself, etc. I'm sure that many parents, caregivers do teach this and follow up on it but sadly it is not always the case.

Diana S. you need to step out of your ivory tower and go into a classroom in a poor neighborhood, an inner city classroom is always a good start. Don't just observe, volunteer. Maybe then you will see the real world!

Susan P.
Susan Price7 years ago

I'm sitting here reading some of these comments and just shaking my head. Where do you people get your information????

To Sheila - Do teachers need $300 to decorate their classrooms? In today's economy it could add up to that. I thought for 32 years. I never asked for funds to decorate my room. Did my room have to be decorated - the answer is a YES. Teachers in Philadelphia are observed at least once a year sometimes more. Part of my review depended on how my room was decorated. Not just changing in the work hanging but the seasonal decorations as well.
Do we save old crayons, markers, etc? Yes we do. Do they last forever? No they don't. Not all children take proper care of their equipment no matter how much they are told too. Often times, these items grow legs and walk out the door. Do we have the time to frisk 30 some students everyday? NO we don't. Can math texts be reused? It depends on the level. K - 3 the textbook companies make consumable books. It's difficult for students at this age to make the transition from writing in the book and copying math problems onto paper and solving the problem. The companies include a lot of coloring, cutting and pasting, cut out parts at this early age. Older students, yes they have a reusable text. But, the powers that be often are sold a bag of tricks where a company says my way is a better way to teach something.

Lastly Sheila, there is a big difference between teaching 2 children and teaching 30 and more.

Robert O.
Robert O7 years ago

Teahcers arethere to teach not have to act as the school's purchasing department or janitorial staff. There is money for those types of things if the know-it-all, do nothing's would cut their waste and mostly undeserved 6 figure salaries.

jane richmond, if NYC teacher have been doing it for years and enjoy it and it doesn't interefere with their teaching then all is fine and well. But it can be a drain on others. Think about it, how would you like it if you had to spend your own money to buy supplies to do your job? How would you like to have to mop the floors, clean the windows, and do repairs of equipment, fixtures or furniture at the palce you work? all for no additional compensation? Is that really fair or feasible? Why don't you think before you open your big stupid mouth Jane?

Sheila N.
sheila s8 years ago

I don’t think teachers should buy supplies or repair equipment. I think they should teach. The money is wasted at higher levels. We all know that.

That said … every year the school gives us a supply list. Every year I think WTF do they need all this for? Easily 50% of it is unnecessary. Every year there are loads of leftovers. Do you really need thin markers, fat markers, dry erase markers, crayons, and colored pencils? I’ve got barely-used crayons coming out the wazoo. (You can buy crayons on clearance tables for 5 cents per box.) How often do students need new math textbooks? Does math change? Why do teachers feel compelled to spend $300 to decorate their room? They can have my used crayon collection and let their students decorate for free. I know what can be done with very little. I homeschooled both my kids through the 8th grade. You can effectively teach kids with very little expense as far as supplies go. (My biggest expense was giving up a salary. That hurt.) You can buy textbooks that once sold for $100 for less than $1 used on Amazon.

jane richmond
jane richmond8 years ago

What's so special about California?? NYC teachers have been doing this for years.

Evelyn J.
Evy J8 years ago

"...compensated like professionals and had the supplies in quantities like your typical SMALL business, you would be amazed at the results."

Except that small businesses exist to make money--to buy supplies and pay living wages--while we offer education as a free good. A friend of mine teaches at a school in a low income area here in LA. Hardly any of her students are only children, and many don't have a solid two parents in the family, much less a solid two incomes. Property taxes in the area are not substantial. So the state picks up the tab right? ...except that CA is hopelessly overextended and paying for a million other things. There just isn't enough money coming in for all the services going out. Education isn't the only thing getting cut, state employees have forced days off, the DMV is closed two Fridays a month, it takes ballot measures to get roadwork done. This is endemic of a larger problem.

Kay L.
KayL NOFORWARDS8 years ago

Almost every teacher I've ever known has always ended up spending their own money on their students and classroom, because what's provided by the schoolboards gives new meaning to the word "minimal"...

Patricia Y.
Patricia Y8 years ago

I think it is shameful that teachers who are facing pay cuts are also forced to pay for class room items out of their own pockets. Teachers are more important to our society than pro athletes and "movie stars" who make millions. What does this say about our society?

April Thompson
April Thompson8 years ago

Shameful! America should be so ashamed!

Diana S.
Diana S8 years ago

A substantial amount of the money that used to go for supplies, building and incidental maintenance, improvements and infrastructure, is now going to support union officials and their non-teaching staff, and unnecessary intramural sports programs.

Teachers used to be able to bank money for THEIR OWN retirement. Now the unions run the pension programs, always tacking on huge admin and maintenance fees, and teachers have to buy their own supplies.

If you think boards of education and school admin staffs eat 'way more of the total school budgets than they need or deserve, take a look at union higher-ups and admin budgets - they don't have real jobs, all of their earnings are taken out of their rank and file members' earnings, and the budgets of the schools their members are supposed to serve.