Alice Kunce was elated to start a job as a remedial reading teacher in Arkansas. Then she arrived at her classroom and reality set in:
I walked into a classroom as a remedial reading teacher with zero books in the room and zero bookshelves. My school gave me $200. That's it. I had no working stapler. No hole puncher. One pair of scissors. No trays. I'll stop there. Let's just say that I write my name on a ton of stuff in my room because it comes out of my own pocket.
What's even more shocking is that Alice could be considered one of the lucky ones.
The Harrisburg School District in Pennsylvania made headlines in 2011 when the high school didn't even have enough pencils for students to take a required state exam. Many teachers receive no funding for classroom supplies.
Several online forums have tried to connect donors in America (and abroad) to help provide teachers with basic classroom items.
Reddit Gifts, part of the popular social media platform Reddit, started aiding teachers in 2012. Educators are asked to send the site a short list of what they lack. The most common items? Photocopier paper, whiteboard markers, pencils/crayons/markers, construction paper, and safety scissors for kids.
Donors, mostly other Redditors, are then matched up with a classroom and asked to ship supplies by the end of September. The thank you letters from teachers are illuminating. One wrote:
Thank you so much for choosing to send my students a care package! I teach high school biology in a very low income, inner-city school. My classroom is a place where kids can forget about violence, poverty, crime, and gang activity … Unfortunately, with a $0 budget for supplies, I spent over $1,200 last year so my kids could have good experiences, like dissecting chicken wings in anatomy class because we could not afford to order specimens. I can use ANY school supplies (glue sticks, colored pencils, construction paper, pencils, pens, spiral notebooks) or anything else to make my students have a special experience in high school ... GO MUSTANGS!
That's a lot of emotion over markers and glue sticks. It sounds more like something a teacher from the developing world would write, not the US. But when you speak to teachers like Alice Kunce, you realize that those supplies either would not be in the classroom or would have been bought out of an educator's personal funds.
Reddit Gifts helped about 2,500 classrooms last year at an estimated total value of $150,000. This year's campaign, currently underway, has had over 10,000 requests, including some from other countries.
"We're inspired that we're able to help people, but it's really sad just the basic things that they all need. Eighty percent of these teachers need Clorox wipes, tape, and say 'we're already out of copy paper for the year' [in September]. It's pitiful," says Dan McComas, creator of Reddit Gifts. McComas decided to do the drive for classrooms for free after a teacher friend pointed out the need and suggested the site's exiting code would work well for the new endeavor.
Donors Chooseis an even bigger operation trying to aid America's teachers, having generated about $193m in donations for classrooms since the site was founded in 2000. Interestingly, one of the most frequently asked questions the site gets is whether it will expand to other countries (for the record, the answer is no. They still see plenty of need in the US to serve).
"Teachers most often describe themselves as 'engaging'. They want to do more than teach from the textbook," says Melanie Duppins, a former teacher who is now senior director of policy and learning at Donors Choose. That kind of teaching requires supplies.
Donors Choose likes to cast itself as "venture capital" for teachers. The site lets donors select which projects to fund ranging from school supplies to field trips to special science lab equipment. It runs year round and covers more types of projects than the Reddit initiative, but it's telling that the vast majority of teacher requests on the site have beenfor basic supplies(aka markers, crayons and photocopy paper) and calculators.
To me, that's not venture capital for creative ideas, that's basic working capital for day-to-day operation.
As Syria has dominated the news, plenty of people have posted sayings on social media along the lines of: "America has money to fight a war, but not to educate our kids." Another common refrain is "What if we fully funded schools and made prisons make up their budget deficit with Box Tops and money from Target?" a reference to more programs schools try to utilize to get a few more dollars and supplies.
Anyone who questions the classroom resource issues should take a quick scan through the requests on Donors Choose and Reddit Gifts. Consider that teachers from 53% of American K-12 schools have posted on Donors Choose.
Education funding is complex in the US because every public school receives a combination of federal, state and local government dollars. And it varies state to state how the funding formulas work. Let's just say some states and communities are more generous than others.
A teacher at a fairly well off suburban school told me that he has access to a "supply center" that he can order from every month. Many wealthier schools also expect students to come to class with their own supplies, even laptops. It's yet another disparity between wealthy and poor neighborhoods: who has markers and construction paper for fun classroom projects and who has to rely on a dedicated teacher to beg for money online.
The situation in each school and classroom varies, but when thousands of teachers are on sites like Reddit Gifts and Donors Choose trying to make the case for funding for basic supplies, you have to wonder where America's priorities are.