Each year before the first day of school, Jefferson County Public Schools teachers prepare for their students by organizing classrooms, decorating bulletin boards and stocking up on last-minute school supplies.

At the same time, those teachers dive deep into their own wallets to boost learning experiences and provide supplies with minimal, if any, reimbursement from their schools.

JCPS teachers reported spending an average $500 to $600 of their own money on their classrooms, according to an informal Insider Louisville survey of nearly 200 teachers in the district. Around 5 percent reported spending over $2,000 a year, with one person reporting spending $3,000.

The average JCPS teachers report is only marginally above a nationwide average. A recent Department of Education survey found 94 percent of U.S. teachers paid for supplies without reimbursement, averaging around $479 a year.

JCPS gives each school $140 per student to pay for supplies, a JCPS spokesman said. Each school’s site-based decision-making council decides how those funds are spent.

At some schools, that money is available to reimburse teachers for supplies or is provided as a stipend, JCPS teachers told Insider. Around 23 percent of teachers said they received some form of money for supplies and classroom items from their school or Parent Teacher Association.

But typically that reimbursement, if it exists, is nowhere near enough to cover the supplies teachers need. Or teachers are required to purchase items from a specific list of vendors in order for the school to pay for it.  

“The purchasing process is so complicated and time-consuming that it is more expedient to just buy it myself,” one teacher said.

Around 96 percent of teachers said school supplies are their top out-of-pocket expense. Supplies could range from copy paper for themselves to extra pencils and markers to have on hand to covering a student’s initial supply list when their parents can’t or won’t purchase supplies.

“I can’t simply let a child suffer because their parent doesn’t want to send them in with pencils,” one teacher said.

Items to improve lessons and the learning experience, like room décor and learning materials, also topped the list of common expenses. Many teachers said while some may consider decorations or additional learning tools optional expenses, they can help students feel at home or better grasp concepts.

“If a student doesn’t feel safe and comfortable in their learning environment, they will not learn,” first-grade teacher Katharine Faris said. “The more I can make my room feel like a second home (or, in some cases, a safer home), the more open my students will be to taking the risk of learning new ideas and concepts.”

A lack of supplies or learning materials can become a “hindrance to student experiences,” especially during science experiments or other hands-on lessons, another teacher said.

Additionally, teachers reported an extensive range of additional school-related purchases, including snacks, incentives, art supplies and hygiene items for students. Around three-fourths said they bought books for a classroom library.

Nearly 40 percent said they purchased flexible seating — different types of chairs, standing options and exercise balls. Giving students options can help more fidgety students focus, one teacher explained.

Priority-school teachers report spending the same on average — around $500 a year — as their non-priority school counterparts, according to the survey. But priority-school teachers tended to spend more on school and hygiene supplies for their students instead of on books and classroom items.

Teachers in priority schools, who frequently work with low-income students, said they tend to have less provided to them to begin with. One teacher said she has to supply everything outside of textbooks — even dry erase markers and chalk.

Only 19 percent of priority-school teachers said they receive some form of reimbursement from the school, less than their non-priority counterparts.

The district’s new teacher union contract provides $1,600 a year in incentives for teaching in priority schools. Jefferson County Teacher Association President Brent McKim said while the stipend is not intended to cover supplies, it could help. 

Priority school teachers will be able to apply for money from a pool of funds when school allocations won’t cover what they need, McKim said. The pool is including in the new union contract, but does not specify how much the district will put in the fund. McKim said he expects a “significant” investment.

New JCPS teachers can also get supplies and classroom materials from the union’s new teacher supply warehouse, which is open to teachers in their first five years at JCPS, McKim said. Retiring teachers donate teaching materials and JCTA reaches out to community partners to raise funds to purchase new supplies. Teachers can take whatever they can carry for free, McKim said.

“It looks like Black Friday,” McKim said, estimating 300 to 400 teachers showed up to the warehouse last Saturday, some lining up an hour early.

When teachers can’t afford what they need out-of-pocket, they frequently turn to sites like Donors Choose or GoFundMe to fundraise. People can donate small amounts to a large project or a wishlist of school supplies. Teachers who use the site say those small amounts build quickly and reduce the financial burden on themselves.

One of Katharine Faris’ students using a tablet funded through a Donors Choose project. | Courtesy of Faris

Faris said she has had two projects funded via Donors Choose. One helped her provide six tablets for her kindergarten classroom.

“Most 5-year-olds have no idea how to work a computer mouse!” Faris said. “Using tablets allowed them to access online/computer-based resources in a more intuitive way. I would never have been able to afford these tablets without the Donors Choose project.”

However, even the crowdfunding sites have some issues. For example, Donors Choose doesn’t allow a user to pull donations unless a project is fully funded, Faris said.

“I have a project up currently for some more flexible seating options that I couldn’t afford on my own,” Faris explained. “But, if it doesn’t get fully funded, it’s not like I will still be able to get two of the lap desks and two of the floor seats and forget the rest.”

Ultimately, teachers will spend their money to give students the best learning atmosphere possible, regardless of reimbursement. But an increased stipend would help, teachers told Insider.

“We aren’t trying to be martyrs or anything by using our own money. We all knew that was part of the job,” one teacher said. “We just want to be treated like professionals with advanced degrees that we are.”

An increased tax-deductible amount would also help, Faris said. Teachers can write off $250 of supplies on their taxes each year, but the entire amount a teacher spends should be tax deductible, she said.

“If I learn a certain type of chair works for a specific student to help them be successful, then I’ll buy it, or teaching a specific skill and find an engaging lesson that incorporates deeper learning, I’ll buy the supplies for it,” teacher Krystina Sheehan said. “It’s what teachers do.”

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Olivia Krauth
Krauth reports on education in Louisville, including JCPS, the University of Louisville and state policy. Before joining Insider Louisville, she covered technology and business as a reporter at TechRepublic. She also spent time on the data team at the Austin American-Statesman in Texas as a Dow Jones intern. Krauth graduated from UofL, where she was an award-winning editor of The Louisville Cardinal and obtained a degree in investigative journalism with a minor in Russian studies. Email Olivia at [email protected]