How a viral campaign is helping U.S. teachers buy supplies and raise political pressure
Union hopes #CleartheList puts education funding on the 2020 election agenda
Jodi Haque, a Brooklyn public high school teacher, opened her door recently and found a delivery of more than 50 books, everything she would need for her special education classes for the coming school year — all donated by Canadians.
A few days earlier, Haque received an email saying a Canadian couple she'd never met had bought close to $500 US worth of reading material for her classroom. They found a wish list Haque posted on social media using the hashtag #CleartheList, a campaign to help teachers find donations of much-needed school supplies.
"I was honestly so, so blessed," said Haque, who helps students aged 14 to 16 with a wide range of learning disabilities. The moment, however, was bittersweet as she reflected on the need to rely on the generosity of strangers to provide for her students.
"It's sad that strangers are helping out more than the people that are elected to help us," Haque said.
A sixth-year teacher, she estimates she spends $500 to $700 a year of her own money purchasing everything from bookshelves, pencils and paper to cleaning items like hand sanitizer, tissues and paper towels. Her school provides $250 for supplies, though that number can vary.
"It frustrates me to no end knowing that my kids who need the most are constantly lacking the basic materials in order to be successful," Haque said.
The viral social media campaign that connected her to donors has helped bring a decades-old problem back into the spotlight, and teachers' union leaders hope it could change the narrative around teachers and the support they need.
It's a problem perhaps as old as the profession itself: teachers having to reach into their own pockets to pay for supplies for their classroom. For many, it's part of the profession.
Dora Leland sees it as an annual requirement. "If I don't do it, it makes my job harder to do. It also limits the experience of my students," said Leland, a Grade 7 history teacher in upstate New York entering her 30th year in the profession.
A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute found U.S. teachers spend on average $459 on school supplies for which they are not reimbursed. The amount ranges from $327 in North Dakota to $664 in California.
"This is a problem that is persisting and is taking place in the whole country. This is describing what's going on in our schools for virtually all our teachers, 95 per cent of them," said study author Emma Garcia.
The problem is just as prevalent in Canada. The Canadian Teachers' Federation says it hasn't studied the issue recently but a 2010 survey found, on average, teachers in Canada spent $453 on classroom supplies and activities. That average had increased more than $100 from five years earlier.
As social media channels filled up over the summer with teachers looking to fill basic needs in their classrooms, celebrities like Ellen Degeneres and Kristen Bell encouraged their followers to donate. Corporations took up the cause.
While she's ecstatic about the response — the idea emerged from a small Facebook group among teachers that grew to 30,000 members within a few weeks — Courtney Jones questions why such a campaign is necessary.
"It is frustrating that this movement exists. It shouldn't exist, it shouldn't be an issue," said the elementary school teacher from Texas who started the campaign. "We shouldn't have to crowdsource and spend all of our time trying to get these supplies for our students."
She said the underlying problem of chronic underfunding of education needs to be addressed, and while she's done more than 100 media interviews about the #CleartheList campaign, she wants to channel her energy now to changing policy and enacting new legislation.
"It's just really sad that we're even at this place. I think we need to really look at ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves why we're spending money on high-stakes testing, but we're not actually investing in the teachers," Jones said.
Union leaders see opportunity in the exposure the #CleartheList campaign has received. The head of the largest U.S. teachers' union said it's a chance to continue to put education funding on the agenda for the 2020 election.
Problems that are invisible don't get solved.— Randi Weingarten
"You're seeing a lot of attention, which is really important because problems that get attention get solved, problems that are invisible don't get solved," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
After years of state-level cuts to education in austerity budgets, Weingarten says, the wave of teacher strikes and walkouts in 2018 in states like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky helped change the conversation around education funding.
She says 2018 was a tipping point, in which issues of pay disparity came to the forefront, and the public saw how teachers work multiple jobs and still manage to buy supplies with their own money.
'We need to see policy change'
"The Democratic candidates are talking about public education more than I've ever heard in recent history, they're talking about the funding, so narratives have changed and that's really good, but we need to see policy change," said Weingarten.
An American Federation of Teachers study found 21 states spend less on education now than they did before the 2007-08 recession, though that number is down from 25. Weingarten says boosts to education funding in states like New Mexico are a positive sign.
Critics, however, say the argument about underfunding education is more complex and doesn't take into account that average spending per pupil in the U.S. has continually increased in recent decades. The challenge is how the money is being spent, said Rick Hess at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank.
Hess said a large chunk of funding is spent on health care and pensions, which are directed at retirees and not the classroom. He said the last 40 years have also seen school districts add administrative and non-instructional staff at a rate that far outstrips classroom staff and growth in enrolment.
"It's certainly fair to ask if we're adequately funding schools but I think it's equally important to ask whether school systems are spending their dollars wisely, and I think there is a real question on that score," said Hess.
Hess said he thinks studies have overestimated how much teachers spend out-of-pocket, and while he welcomes the charitable spirit that campaigns like #CleartheList encourage, he doesn't think they help the debate around education spending.
"I'm not sure that beating the drum that we're underfunding schools helps us have the conversation we need to have."
Courtney Jones estimates the #CleartheList campaign has resulted in more than $500,000 spent toward teachers' out-of-pocket expenses.
Many students live in poverty
Many of the teachers she's heard from work in Title 1 schools, where a large percentage of the students live in poverty. She teaches in a Title 1 school and understands that teachers are often reluctant to ask for donations from parents who can't afford basic supplies.
"Those school supplies lists get longer and longer and parents get frustrated, and so we ended up meeting the need because we're not just going to let our kids go empty-handed," Jones said.
She hopes the campaign will spark conversations about change. "I hope to speak with legislators and policy-makers, and I think it's a good time going into the 2020 election."
Jodi Haque also teaches in a Title 1 school and says from binders and paper, pencils and books, she's going to keep bridging the supply gap at her school.
"It makes me frustrated but it also makes me want to cry because we shouldn't be at this place; everything that is the future starts with our kids," Haque said.