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Give NC teachers a boost to purchase school supplies

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It’s a well-known fact that teachers spend a lot of money out of pocket — their not-very-deep pockets — to buy school supplies for pupils who can’t afford any.

The National Center of Education Statistics crunched some numbers last year and put the figure at an average of $479 in purchases per teacher per year.

Something ought to be done about that. Earlier this month, state schools Superintendent Mark Johnson and some fellow Republicans from the state Senate looked, for a brief, shining moment, as if they were.

Johnson and the senators had a plausible-sounding notion. Under Senate Bill 580, they would give every teacher in the state — all 98,000 of them — $400 to spend on classroom supplies, any way they like. The funds would be available through an app called ClassWallet, which teachers could access on their phones.

Now, what could be wrong with that?

Well, a couple of things.

First, the money going to those $400-per-teacher allotments would not be “new” money. Reading the fine print, it became clear that Johnson and the senators wanted to yank most of the $47 million the state allocates to the local school districts for classroom supply purchases. That’s a classic robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul ploy.

Sen. Andy Wells, one of the sponsors, said he was mad that “bureaucrats” in local school districts were taking some of that school supply money and squandering on things like, er, textbooks.

Some school administrators had a different view. They argued that school systems can buy supplies in bulk, saving more money than the teachers could spending $400 alone. Some pointed out that many school systems, the ones with healthy tax bases, often spend more money on classroom supplies than the state allocates.

A few critics claimed that ClassWallet only lets teachers deal with a limited number of vendors.

Others pointed out that the $400 wouldn’t be transferable. Some teachers — say, PE instructors — don’t handle a lot of school supplies. But Coach A wouldn’t be able to let Ms. B, the English teacher, buy more pencils and notebooks.

About the kindest thing that can be said about Senate Bill 580, then, is that it’s a publicity stunt that shuffles existing funds, inefficiently, to create an illusion of doing something.

Earlier this month, the bill came up at the state Board of Education meeting, where Johnson defended it and called it a shame “that people would just jump to conclusions,” reported N.C. Policy Watch.

Lisa Godwin, a former teacher of the year who sits on the board, said she had changed her mind about supporting the bill, because she initially believed it was new money for teachers. After learning Senate Bill 580 would be funded with money the state already gives districts for school supplies, Godwin skipped a press conference with the state superintendent to announce the plan, reported N.C. Policy Watch. “I have to stand on my conviction,” Godwin said. “If I don’t think it’s good for teachers and students, I can’t support it.

The fact is, state allotments for school supplies have been cut by some 55 percent since the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009. Instead of making up the difference, legislators chose to pass out feel-good tax cuts that had little impact on low- or middle-income taxpayers.

North Carolina’s per pupil spending still ranks below the national average.

Instead of gimmicks, why don’t we just give the schools more money for supplies?

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