Last Wednesday, Superintendent Mark Johnson was joined by important members of the House and Senate for what they promised would be “a major announcement regarding education in North Carolina.” While the hype for the announcement was major, the announcement itself was a dud.
The “major announcement” was a plan to divert funding for classroom supplies from school districts to an app that would give every teacher $400 to spend on classroom supplies. No additional funding for cash-starved classrooms would be provided, just a fancy new way of buying things that nobody asked for.
The plan has been met with derision by teachers.
Lisa Godwin, the 2017 North Carolina Teacher of the Year, pulled out of the press conference after learning that the plan didn’t add money for classroom supplies. Her verdict: “it’s not good for teachers.”
She expanded on that sentiment in a story by Policy Watch reporter Greg Childress, saying:
I realized it was just a reallocation of funds. It felt like there could be repercussions for districts. Districts could be hurt from a purchasing stand point because they buy so many things in bulk and they have capacity to buy more at a lesser amount. If we took that money away from them that could prohibit them from being able to do that.”
2018 North Carolina Teacher of the Year, Freebird McKinney, shared those concerns. “If it’s new funds, that’s incredible, that’s great. We all need it. But if it’s taking the power away from the districts …”
The plan is likely to drive up costs for supplies, increase administrative costs, and will open up new avenues for fraud. As veteran Mecklenburg County educator Justin Parmenter pointed out on his Notes from the Chalkboard blog last week in discussing one of the apps identified in the proposal:
…ClassWallet, a tool which teachers in other states have complained has a very limited selection, charges prices far higher than their schools can get buying bulk, and is not available until well into the school year.”
So where did this bad idea come from?
It certainly didn’t come from teachers. Superintendent Johnson admitted that he hadn’t talked to teachers about his ill-conceived scheme.
The evidence on display at Wednesday’s press conference points to another potential origin story: the imagination of Senator Andy Wells (R-Catawba).
At the press conference, Wells said the change is needed because some school districts have misspent money meant for classroom supplies on “other things on their to-do list and left teachers paying for their own school supplies.”
Lucky for us, the Department of Public Instruction publishes data showing whether school districts have been taking their state-provided money for supplies and moving the money to fund “other things on their to-do list.”
Indeed, state law permits districts the flexibility to move money from one funding stream to another. That sort of flexibility is recommended by school finance experts. And in the past school year, districts overwhelmingly used that flexibility to move money into their classroom supply fund, rather than spending it on other priorities, as Wells claimed.
In FY 17-18, the state sent districts $44.3 million for classroom supplies. Twenty-one districts moved money out of their classroom supplies allotment compared to 70 districts that moved money from other areas into their classroom supplies allotment (24 districts did neither). The net change was a $19.3 million increase into classroom supplies budgets across the state. The state sent districts only $44.3 million for supplies, but they ended up spending $62.7 million on supplies.
In other words, Sen. Wells’ comments are just flat out untrue. Districts have mostly been doing the opposite of what Wells accused them of doing. They’re actually cutting other things on their “to-do” list in order to make up for shortfalls in state funding for supplies.
In short, the school supply problem isn’t one of mismanagement. The reason that teachers have to reach into their pockets for classroom supplies is that state leaders like Senator Wells have cut funding for classroom supplies 55 percent over the past decade.
The solution to the state’s classroom supplies shortfall lies not in gimmicks, but in an end to the destructive budgets cuts that have been starving our public education system.
Kris Nordstrom is a senior policy analyst at the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project.