Supply money is scarce, and parents are feeling the pinch
RALEIGH — Parents with children in North Carolina's public schools may have gotten a shock last week when they received long lists of requested back-to-school supplies.
Teachers say that after years of double-digit cuts to state budgets for instructional supplies and textbooks, they are increasingly forced to turn to parents, churches and charities to stock their classrooms.
"We horde supplies," said Ashley Montgomery, who teaches kindergarten at Nancy Reynolds Elementary School in Stokes County. "If there's anything to grab, we grab it. Because whatever the parents bring in is what we've got for the year, unless we go out and buy it ourselves."
The list Montgomery sent home with her students is pretty typical — notebook, crayons, glue sticks, pencils, etc. But, like many other teachers across the state, she also asked parents to provide copier paper, cleaning supplies and other items that were once provided by the school.
"We don't have the funds we need," said Montgomery, who has been teaching 10 years. "It gets kind of frustrating when you hear about some of the things they're spending money on down in Raleigh and we don't have paper."
Gov. Pat McCrory has repeatedly touted the K-12 education budget for the upcoming school year as "the highest in state history" at $8.2 billion.
In fact, it's nowhere close, according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. Total K-12 appropriation for the 2008-09 school year was more than $8.5 billion, or about $283 million more than it is now, according to DPI. That's without adjusting for inflation, which makes the gap even wider.
Planned education spending has ticked up about $23 million from a year ago, but even that modest increase evaporates when accounting for enrollment growth.
More than 1.5 million students are projected to have shown up for classes statewide last week, about 33,400 more kids than six years ago. As a result, average class sizes have soared while North Carolina's per pupil spending has fallen to 48th in the nation.
In 2008, the state budgeted more than $100 million for buying new textbooks and $87 million for classroom supplies. This year's budget allocates less than $24 million for textbooks and $44 million for supplies, decreases of 77 percent and 50 percent, respectively, over the past six years.
The cuts are having a direct impact inside classrooms and, by extension, on families dealing with tighter budgets at home as the sluggish economic recovery drags on. The state's 8.9 percent unemployment rate is now the third highest in the nation. Meanwhile, the state's GOP-controlled legislature has slashed the benefits paid to those who've lost their jobs.
Teresa Davis, a music teacher at Lumberton High School in Robeson County, said she used to get about $3,000 each year to buy new sheet music for classes and student concerts. This year, she got $200.
Davis said she also doesn't have enough textbooks to provide one to each student to take home. Everyone has to share.
The current state budget provides about $15 per child for new textbooks. New textbooks in core subjects such as math, English and social studies cost between $44 and $68 each, according to DPI. High school students might have six or seven class for which they need books.
"We don't even have the basic things anymore, such as paper and books," Davis said. "Unemployment is high in our county and we have so many families living below the poverty level, you know that if you request something that cost $10 or $5, then that's taking food off their table."
And even though teachers again received no raises this year, Davis said they will continue to reach into their own pockets to buy supplies for kids who can't afford them. She invited the governor to come to her classroom to see what it is really like.
"I would like for him to sit down with me for 30 minutes, bring in his budget and explain to me how it increases spending in education," said the veteran teacher. "When I look at my budget and see that spending on textbooks is less, spending on supplies is less and spending on students is less, I don't see an increase. I guess he needs to explain his math to me."