Teachers across the country are having to shell out in the face of shrinking school budgets. Image via Shutterstock
Teachers across the country are having to shell out in the face of shrinking school budgets. Image via Shutterstock

“My out-of-pocket costs have gone through the roof this year.”

When Ohio schools closed in the spring, Jennifer Culver, a high school teacher in the Cuyahoga Falls City School District, was forced to buy several items to facilitate her ability to teach virtually. Those items included a drawing tablet that allows her to grade music theory assignments, a document camera, a computer stand, speakers, headphones, a wireless mouse and keyboard, and blue light-filtering glasses.

“My out-of-pocket costs have gone through the roof this year,” she told COURIER.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced in May immediate cuts to funding for K-12 schools because of budget shortfalls associated with the coronavirus pandemic. Ironically, the announcement, which affects both the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years, came the week of Teacher Appreciation Week.

“During the shutdown, it was extremely challenging to teach music remotely without any technology to support this work,” Culver said. 

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Public schools across the country have had their budgets slashed because of the COVID recession—that’s because state and local revenues account for a large portion of district budgets. As a result, educators have had to bear the brunt of those cuts.

In several states, according to the latest calculations of state-level data by Pew Research, local education employment fell more than 10% since September 2019. In other words, teachers, bus drivers, food service workers, and other support staff have lost jobs to make up for budget reductions during the shift to online learning.

Compounding these budget shortfalls is the need for increased spending on measures to combat spread of the virus, including cleaning and sanitizing supplies for districts that have reopened in-class instruction. Estimates from the School Superintendents Association released in May found it would cost an average district approximately $194,045 for personal protective equipment (PPE) and $116,950 for health and disinfecting supplies. 

So far, Culver’s fine arts department has not endured any staff cuts. Her district is operating via hybrid mode—a combination of in-person learning at a reduced capacity and virtual learning. Because being able to effectively teach students music courses online presents many challenges, Culver submitted a proposal to the school board to purchase subscriptions to music resources for all students in the district, which they obliged. 

“I am very grateful for this, as neighboring districts are handling things in all different ways,” she said. 

Over 240 school employees at Dayton County Public Schools in Ohio, for example, were temporarily laid off in September in order to save $2.4 million over the course of nine weeks. 

Nationally, at least 350,000 education jobs were cut in September alone within K-12 schools and colleges in the US. The biggest layoffs were found in New York, California, Florida, Virginia, Maryland, and Ohio.

No Help in Sight

To help schools that would inevitably see their budgets shrink because of the forthcoming economic crisis, Congress passed the CARES Act in March, which provided more than $2 trillion in economic relief, including $13.2 billion funding for K-12 schools across the country. The relief did help provide financial assistance to schools, but only in the short term. 

The Democrat-controlled House has been pushing for a second stimulus package, which includes $225 billion for education relief, but the package has received pushback from the Senate, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

McConnell, who was recently re-elected by Kentucky voters for another six-year term, has been staunchly opposed to passing a second stimulus bill, calling for a “more modest” package than the one passed by the House in May that would provide aid to small businesses, schools, and hospitals. Instead, he has focused his efforts on confirming more judges.

It’s unlikely a second stimulus package will be passed before the end of the year, which leaves schools struggling in the meantime.

Nationally, at least 350,000 education jobs were cut in September alone within K-12 schools and colleges in the US.

Culver said Ohio’s budget cuts were mostly absorbed in cost savings to her district: less utilities, no overtime for custodial staff, and less fuel costs due to lack of bussing. While some of the budget cuts to her district have been offset by CARES funding, she said her district has been forced to act conservatively with finances to keep operations stable.

It’s now been seven months since Congress passed the CARES Act, and without an agreement on a second stimulus package on the horizon, teachers fear what further budget cuts could mean for school resources. Further slashing of state budgets could, for example, lead to more teacher layoffs, reductions in school days, elimination of some school programs, and less money for textbooks and equipment. 

“This is definitely my biggest area of concern,” Culver said. “The pandemic has created the need for additional teaching resources and safety equipment for the music classroom. If we don’t secure additional funding, I’m concerned how we will maintain the resources and materials we are using every day in our hybrid and remote teaching situations.”

Research shows that education spending cuts impacts student achievement. “On average,” the authors of a recent study published in Education Next write, “a $1,000 reduction in per-pupil spending reduces average test scores in math and reading by 3.9 percent of a standard deviation and increases the score gap between black and white students by roughly 6 percent. A $1,000 reduction also lowers the college-going rate by about 2.6 percent.”

Teachers Are Forced to Come Out of Pocket Even More

While Culver’s school district allocated money from the CARES Act to purchase the appropriate PPE for musical instruments, like musician face masks and instrument covers, she’s had to come out of pocket for subscriptions to make videos of lessons for students and various teaching resources to assist with distance learning.

Teachers typically spend at least $459 of their own money at the start of each school year. Without federal and state assistance during the pandemic, however, even smaller budgets mean even bigger expenses for teachers.

Culver said she is currently on step 19 of the Ohio salary schedule with a masters degree, and makes $72,325 annually. Like most teachers, she spends her own money on general classroom supplies and continuing education resources every year, but this year she has spent significantly more.

Since returning to school in August, Culver said she has purchased:

  • a personal speaker amplification device
  • alcohol wipes/bleach wipes
  • hand sanitizer
  • face shields
  • safety glasses
  • masks

While teachers everywhere have had to supplement their limited 2020-21 school year budgets by using their own money to buy supplies, the reality is that how long the pandemic will rage on remains unclear. This week, the US became the first nation to surpass 10 million coronavirus infections as the “third wave” of the COVID-19 virus surges across the nation. The predicted fall and winter surge in cases has already arrived, with a new seven-day average of coronavirus cases of more than 111,000. That’s a major increase from the seven-day average of less than 35,000 cases. 

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Experts fear things will only get worse, and with no federal relief on the horizon, public school budgets across the country are at an impasse.

“It’s difficult to predict how the district would absorb additional cuts and how they might impact art and music classrooms,” Culver explained. 

After Gov. DeWine’s budget announcement in May, the Ohio School Boards Association, the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, and the Ohio Association of School Business Officials released a joint statement

“The loss of state funds will no doubt create challenges for many districts. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to have a negative effect on the economy, schools will also begin to suffer losses in local tax revenues in the coming months. The news about the cuts in state funding was daunting for their members to hear.”

While Culver remains dedicated to providing her students with a comprehensive, full education in art and music, the personal cost to doing this amid such financial uncertainty for schools cannot be understated.

“I have spent a small fortune,” she admitted. “But I am literally using every single one of these items I’ve purchased every single day to do my job.”

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