Guilford County second grade teacher Nicole Batts-Elder scoped out shelves stacked with spiral notebooks, multicolor folders and bundles of unsharpened pencils at the Guilford County Teacher Supply Warehouse on a recent afternoon.
She’s trying to save money on materials for her classroom, a task she says sets her back $500 to $600 a year.
"Anything from baskets to border to notebooks to pencils, to tissue to pencil sharpeners," she said. "I mean just little things, like shoestrings."
The shop, supported by the Guilford Education Alliance, lets teachers visit four times a school year to pick out donated school supplies that teachers often spend their own money on. At the warehouse, items each cost a certain amount of "points" depending on demand. Guildford County teachers get 20 points each visit. The warehouse also has additional room full of items that are completely free with no point value.
Batts-Elder works at Cone Elementary, a Title I school, where the majority of her kids come from low-income households. She said a lot of these are supplies schools run out of, or things that students are supposed to bring, but show up without.
"Our kids come with what they can bring," Batts-Elder said. "Is it everything? No. Is it the majority of stuff? No. But we make it work."
Batts-Elder is not alone. Teachers across the state are stocking their classrooms for the start of the school year, and most are using their own money to do it.
Recent national surveys from the National School Supply and Equipment Association show teachers spend an average of $500 to nearly $1,000 a year out of their own pockets to stock their classrooms.
To make it work since the recession, teachers and schools have had to dig deep. Not only are families less able to afford classroom supplies on their own, but North Carolina schools are less likely to have the funding they need for classroom materials.
In 2011, state lawmakers cut funding for school supplies in half, from about $60 per student, to $30. Starting this academic school year, classrooms will see about $40 dollars per student.
When state funding went down, school expenses didn’t go away, said Sherry Schliesser, principal at Kingswood Elementary in Wake County.
"So instead of just being able to take care of everything ourselves, we’ve had to seek help from the outside," she said.
By "the outside," Schliesser means donors, including foundations, PTAs, individuals, churches, corporations. Those organizations are covering a lot of her school’s expenses for basic classroom supplies.
Even so, Schliesser said teachers are still spending out of pocket, especially as hands-on projects become a standard part of the 21st century curriculum.
"Children learn best when they have their hands deep in their learning—[when] they're physically involved in developing concepts," she said. Teachers can't give students that experience without extra supplies like straws, cups, string, Styrofoam or rocks or even two-by-fours.
Some North Carolina teachers have been able to fund classroom projects through crowd-funding websites like DonorsChoose. But Schliesser said finding classroom funding shouldn’t be on the backs of teachers, it should be on the state.
"I absolutely do not think it should be coming from teachers pockets," she said. "I say it often that our state constitution provides for the education for students in North Carolina."
At the Teacher Supply Warehouse, Batts-Elder said she’s grateful the Guilford Education Alliance has picked up some of the slack.
"Does that mean I won’t have to go out and spend money? No. I already have, and I’m probably not done," she said. "I haven’t gone back and started setting up my room yet, so I’m sure that I will."
After all, soon her classroom will be full of second-graders. Some will come with sparkly pencil cases and Pokemon erasers. Others might not even have shoelaces. But it’s up to Batts-Elder to make sure that by next August, all of them are ready for third grade.