The tough economy spells bad news for public schools. As states put the squeeze on already tight education budgets, school districts nationwide are looking to cut back without sacrificing too much. As a result, funding for classroom supplies is growing increasingly scarce when it's not being eliminated altogether.
That means teachers are spending their own hard-earned cash not only to buy pencils, pens, and notebooks for students whose families cannot always afford to do so but also to pay for photocopies, chalk, dry-erase markers, posters, and bulletin board decorations. K-12 public school teachers can easily dole out more than $1,000 a year for classroom supplies. As school budgets continue to tighten, that figure is escalating, says James Rosenberg, founder and executive director of Adopt-A-Classroom , which has raised $10 million for supplies for 20,000 classrooms in all 50 states in the past decade.
Sell Advertising Space
Rather than reach deeper into their own pockets, a few creative educators are waging grassroots fundraising efforts. Tom Farber, an Advanced Placement calculus teacher at San Diego's Rancho Bernardo High School, made headlines recently when he asked parents and local businesses to sponsor his exams.
"I knew I had to do something," Farber told Edutopia, explaining that if he gave one quiz per chapter to each of his 167 students, he'd spend more than $500 (roughly $3 a student) on photocopies alone. "I couldn't give fewer tests. If I don't give practice exams along the way, my students won't be ready to take the AP test." It's hard to argue with Farber's logic, given his track record: Nearly 9 out of 10 of his students score a perfect 5 on the AP calculus exam.
So Farber sells a small amount of space at the bottom of each exam. (Download a PDF of a sample exam.) He charges $10 for a quiz, $20 for a test, and $30 for a final. Most advertisers select and sponsor motivational quotes, such as this gem from Quaker author and theologian D. Elton Trueblood: "A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants trees under which he full well knows he will never sit."
To date, Farber has raised more than $625 -- enough to cover a year's worth of photocopies. "It's a sign of the times," he says. "When money is tight, you really have to be more creative."
Want more tips for keeping your classroom stocked without opening your wallet? Here's what a few other educators suggest:
Don't Buy What You Can Get Free
Jennifer Volpe, a speech pathologist at Cobble Hill High School, in Brooklyn, New York, recommends a nonprofit recycling site called Freecycle , where people from all over the world post books, CDs, electronics, and toys they're giving away. Volpe says she has gotten reading material through Freecycle that the school couldn't provide, and a friend found games she could use for speech therapy. "The only catch is that you have to arrange to pick up the items," she says.
Teachers who work in schools in which 60 percent of students qualify for free lunch can take part in a monthly shopping spree at resource centers such as A Gift for Teaching , in Orlando, Florida. Part of the Kids in Need Foundation , A Gift for Teaching gets a majority of its brand-new teaching supplies donated as surplus from local businesses that would otherwise throw them away.
Another option is to join a Yahoo listserv in your community and post a request for whatever classroom supplies you're searching for.
Put Your Classroom Up for Adoption
The nonprofit site Adopt-A-Classroom offers a free, safe online "e-wallet" account to educators who want to solicit financial support from their community. Teachers can use the money to purchase books, games, and other educational supplies through the wide range of online vendors associated with the site. Donors receive a copy of the receipt as well as a personal thank-you note from the teacher.
To sign up, log on to the site, register your classroom, and describe what kinds of supplies you'd like to buy. Then let parents and local businesses know that they can "adopt" your classroom through the site for as little as $25. All the proceeds go directly to your classroom.
Go for the Big Score
OfficeMax is helping end "teacher-funded classrooms." The company, in partnership with Adopt-A-Classroom, hosts the annual A Day Made Better event in October. Last year, the office superstore sent 1,300 teachers each a large box of classroom-supply staples that included scissors, glue sticks, chalk, pencils, pens, notebooks, tissues, hand sanitizer, and even a digital camera.
Zolunda Greenwood, a fifth-grade teacher at G.H. Reid Elementary School, in Richmond, Virginia, was one of the lucky recipients. Her class had just finished cutting out pumpkin stencils when the principal arrived with red helium balloons and roses. He rolled in a leather chair and big boxes of supplies. "It was like Christmas," she says. The gift came at an especially opportune time for Greenwood. Last summer, the storage closet where she keeps her classroom supplies leaked. "A lot of my stuff got flooded," she says. "That pushed me to spend a lot more this year."
Teachers who'd like to be considered for A Day Made Better 2009 should have a school principal or a fellow teacher nominate them at the official site.
Organize a School-Supply Drive or a Fundraiser
Neeta Garg, owner of the Kumon Math and Reading Center in Allentown-West, Pennsylvania, wanted to help local teachers. So last summer, she organized a school-supply drive. She sent flyers and emails to parents, and her daughter posted the event on Facebook. In addition to hundreds of donated pencils and notebooks, she collected gloves, caps, coats, and backpacks -- all of which she donated to public schools in the area. "Teachers really needed colored index cards, construction paper, and markers for arts and crafts," she notes.
At Wilmot Elementary School, in Deerfield, Illinois, parent-teacher organization (PTO) fundraisers pay for a lot of supplies. Teachers fill out wish lists of the classroom supplies they'd like, from pencil sharpeners to cooking utensils. Last year, the third-grade teachers requested rugs featuring a map of the United States to help teach students geography during carpet time. The PTO organizes a half dozen fundraisers throughout the year to pay for the classroom supplies. These events include Market Day, when students and their families can order food from a catalog once a month, and the proceeds help teachers purchase supplies.
"Teachers, by nature, spend a lot of money on out-of-pocket supplies," says Eileen Brett, Wilmot's principal. "This really offsets the costs."
Tamar Snyder is a writer in New York City who specializes in education, personal finance, and careers.