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Education Trends, Equity Resources, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Sep 21, 2022

The true cost of education if teachers didn’t spend out-of-pocket

By Marissa Minnick

Middle School Science Teacher

The true cost of education if teachers didn’t spend out-of-pocket

By Marissa Minnick

For decades, school budgets have plummeted, but expectations soared and challenges surmounted.

Meager budgets continue to force teachers to do more with less, with many educators choosing to “do it for the kids” by making up the cost difference out of the goodness of their own hearts and out of the depth of their own pockets.

While the news shares updates of schools banning certain books and we hear of states passing laws qualifying any warm body to step into a classroom and teach, it is impossible to not recognize the ways that our schools function as government organizations subject to the sway of political tides.

These past few years have exemplified the fact that our public schools are innately political.

At the most basic level, our schools are beholden to taxpayers to show that they are responsibly spending money in a way that benefits their students and increases standardized test scores. Financial accountability for government-funded organizations should be at the forefront of every taxpayer’s mind, yet there is an unnerving silence surrounding the fact that governing officials have no idea how much our nation’s schools truly cost to operate.

As a school administrator, I encourage public school teachers to rethink the impact of spending personal money (and personal time) on their classrooms. While this “do it for the kids” mindset may serve our students well in the short term, it undermines any larger long-term effort to fully fund public education.

Let’s naively assume that everyone in our country wants what is best for public schools and there is no secret agenda to privatize public education.

Let’s assume that there is a genuine attempt to fully fund our classrooms with not just the bare necessities, but also the materials required for 21st-century hands-on learning, critical thinking, arts integration, and even a few nice touches such as a soft rug, a lamp to cast a cozy glow on a dreary morning, and a welcome sign posted on the door.

How are these trustworthy politicians supposed to determine the true cost of public education?

In a field where data-based decision-making is a buzzword, there is astoundingly no reliable data that can be referenced to determine the true cost of our schools.

Yes, districts submit budget proposals that dutifully lay out the cost of the school year ahead, but these are highly supplemented with uncounted hours of personal time and behind-the-scenes personal shopping carts full of supplies invisible to any itemized budget breakdown.


Our resourceful schools are doing more with less, but they are also doing more by dipping into their staff’s pockets.

I also type “resourceful” with a tinge of remorse as I know our schools shouldn’t be applauded for their savvy money-saving maneuvers and forced resourcefulness when their backs are against the wall.

Teachers, it’s easy to fall victim into the “do it for the kids” mindset. With the quickly surmounting popularity of alternative classroom crowd-funding efforts such as Donors Choose, grant writing opportunities funded by the private for-profit sector, and Amazon Wish lists sent to friends and family, it’s even easier to trick yourself into thinking you’re cutting back your personal spending while still contributing to the inaccurate picture of the cost of public education.

We’ve slipped into a space where getting the actual funding that you need for your classroom requires gambling your time with grant writing or Donors Choose because it’s more effective to write requests to anonymous donors than to write to our public officials to tell them that our students deserve better.

In the interest of full disclosure I, too, have made an Amazon Wish List and sheepishly posted the link to my personal Facebook. I’ve spent time crafting a Donors Choose, NC Bright Ideas grant, and several others with my fingers crossed that it will be funded and that my time would not have been spent in vain.

I’ve also advocated for changes to school-based and state-based policies that better serve our students in the long-run and worked towards a sustainable understanding of what it costs to educate our students while recruiting and retaining highly qualified educators.

I encourage well-intentioned teachers to think about the phrase “impact over intent.” The intent of dipping lovingly into your own pocket, spending evenings in your classroom, and lesson planning on a Sunday morning is undoubtedly positive. The long-term impact, however, is a continually distorted bottom line for how much it costs to run our classrooms – a budget that is exponentially warped under the guise of “doing it for the kids.”

I also understand that the immediate impact of this out-of-pocket spending is a student having an “aha” moment, a lightbulb clicking during an engaging lesson, and a student proudly passing their End of Grade reading assessment.

Like most things, multiple possible answers lie in the murky shades of gray between black and white. A few of these possible answers can be found in the options below.

Here are some various approaches you may consider: 

  • Avoid any personal spending while having the confidence to explain how this intentional choice actually highlights your commitment to the long-term success of public education.
  • Reduce the amount of money that you are spending out of your personal income while advocating for creative reallocation of existing funds to better meet the needs you’re observing in the classroom.
  • Set premeditated boundaries with out-of-pocket spending with the certainty that you are having a positive impact by creating a more accurate financial record of how much it costs to run a classroom.
  • Be more transparent with friends, family, and the community when asking for classroom donations in an effort to increase clarity surrounding the extent to which our schools are underfunded.
  • Choose to spend a limited amount of their personal money on key classroom items that make their day less stressful.
  • Choose to avoid any out-of-pocket spending but invest time in getting supplies donated through personal connections and positive community relationships.
  • Spend money on your classroom while committing to volunteering in local elections to endorse candidates that understand the hardships of our underfunded classrooms.

These are just a few of the possible paths that we can take to establish a clearer idea of the true cost of public education.

These possibilities, however, are shadowed by another, much more expensive option that we’re beginning to see come to fruition across the country.

Teachers are redrawing their own boundaries as they step out of their classrooms and leave the realm of education entirely. These teachers step away from education with broken hearts and numbed dreams — appropriately unwavering in their conviction that their personal well-being cannot and will not be the true cost of what it takes to be a teacher.

Marissa Minnick

Middle School Science Teacher

Marissa Minnick is a middle school science teacher in Durham, NC who is currently a graduate student in Appalachian State University’s School Administration program. Marissa is passionate about creating sustainable workplace practices that increase teacher retention and efficiency. Marissa enjoys...
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