School supplies donations versus making education a budget priority


Julianne Malveaux | 9/6/2019, 6 a.m.
The event promised to be one of those last-gasp-of-summer events that would raise a little money for a good cause. ...
Julianne Malveaux

The event promised to be one of those last-gasp-of-summer events that would raise a little money for a good cause. The young woman who called to tell me about it promised that I’d meet interesting people, enjoy excellent wines and that the cost of attending was modest.

“We aren’t charging anything this year,” she said rather breezily. “But please bring school supplies.”

Her call wasn’t the first call I’ve had asking for school supplies. And whether we are educators, parents of now-adult children or others, we understand how important it is for young people to approach a new school year with “new stuff.” They should have pristine notebooks for the new subject matter, a supply of pens, folders, markers, pencils and more. Some schools actually provide parents with a list of necessary supplies. The lists may include as many as 30 items and cost as much as $300. Low-income parents can’t even begin to meet the set of needs teachers detail, not to mention the things their children clamor for.

Please bring school supplies. That plea speaks to the economic disparity that exists in our country and to the many ways that individuals rush to help, if not close the gap. According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute (I serve on the board), teachers spend at least $450 per year in school supplies. The overwhelming number of them won’t be reimbursed. They pay for some things that school districts should pay for, and they pay for items to support their pupils.

Teachers who work in high poverty areas spend about $100 a year more than those who spend in lower poverty districts. But they all contribute. And even with their spending, people are asked to “bring school supplies.”

Most of us have the heart to help young students, especially those whose families are struggling, and especially those who may not have a new notebook but for charity. But we have to connect the heart to serve to activism that ensures that no child is inadequately supplied when he or she returns to school this fall. As commendable as the pleas for school supplies may be, they must be accompanied by pleas for structural shifts. Why is education the most easily cut item in our federal, state or local budget? Why are we so satisfied that a plea for donated school supplies will be met? And why are we more confident in well-meaning charity than with an economic structure that would serve every child well?

Teachers are among the least well-compensated but the hardest working contributors to our society. They earn at least 21 percent less than folks who are similarly qualified, mainly because the public does not value teachers as much as we once did.

Last year, teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, North Carolina, Kentucky and Colorado went on strike and also garnered national publicity for their plight. Cover stories included accounts of teachers who were working additional jobs to make ends meet. And too many states report teacher shortages because the occupation, with low pay and big hassles, isn’t as attractive as it once was.

Collecting school supplies will help some students, but I think it makes teaching challenging and less attractive. While teachers may enjoy the support of the community with donated school supplies, what does this support mean in terms of relationships and realistic pay? Who wants to be associated with an occupation so marginally regarded that supporters have to panhandle for the tools of their trade?

On the one hand, I applaud Courtney Jones, the elementary schoolteacher from Tyler, Texas, who launched a #clearthelists campaign to encourage people to help teachers pay for school supplies. On the other hand, I’d be much more enthusiastic about a #educationfirst campaign that urged legislators to prioritize education in budgets.

The writer is an economist, author and former president of Bennett College.