August 13, 2009

Supplies and Trends in Fund Allocation

Justin Katz

In the comments to my post on teachers' paying for classroom supplies, Mike from Assigned Reading offers his objection:

You know I'm a public school teacher Justin, and I am generally on your side. I believe the unions and bureaucracy are the significant problems in public education.

With that in mind, I found this post to be way off the mark. Yes, you need to buy expensive tools to be a carpenter. That's part of the initial investment in your profession. Teachers invest in five or six years of education, and continue to invest in education as their tools of the trade. I regularly buy professional texts to learn more, and better my practice. I pay to attend professional conferences and workshops for the same purpose. I should.

When you build a structure, you don't pay for the materials. You figure that into the amount of the job. The party that contracted you pays for the materials. The contractor determines the profit after the cost of the materials are figured in.

I could go on and on about how much I spend on my classroom. I won't. I'm not complaining. But it seems ridiculous that teachers should have to buy pencils, crayons, paper, folders, books, and the like for 25 students as part of their salaries.

I know your argument will be that teachers get too much. But this post is petty, and adds to the idea that you are anti-teacher. Teachers should not be responsible for buying classroom supplies. How much they should be paid is another argument.

I must tell you that I've been disappointed lately. The liberal RI blog is all about the unions and the teachers, and this blog seems all about the taxpayers. It mirrors the entire debate. It's the children that don't have strong advocates. I'm working on that.

Just in case there's misunderstanding as to what sorts of things carpenters need beyond hammers, nails, and wood, I jotted down a quick inventory of disposable items with which I keep my van stocked at my own expense, not including such things as screws and nails or tools: pencils, notepads, shoe guards, latex gloves, ear plugs, dust makes, garbage bags, grinder discs, flushcut blades, sawzall blades, skilsaw blades, jigsaw blades, drill bits, rotozip bits, palm sander discs, belt sander belts, masonry bits, screwdriver bits, sandpaper, light bulbs, snap line chalk, wood filler, bondo, wood cleaner, wood glue, PVC primer and glue, zip ties, caulk, silicone, construction adhesive, painter's tape, duct tape, aluminum tape, electrical tape, caution tape, air gun oil, pumice, wood putty, rope, string, primer, chip brushes, shims, Goo Gone, metal straps, and sheet plastic.

Some of these items duplicate supplies provided when needed in bulk for a job. Some of them are regular items to which I periodically have access for stocking purposes. Some of them I buy because I prefer a product other than what my boss provides. But like tools and specialty fasteners, having such things on-hand whether or not a specific need was foreseen makes me a more effective and efficient carpenter, with one of its benefits being the ability to ask for higher pay. Just so, Central Falls teacher Pam Barnes told the Providence Journal that buying school supplies "makes it easier for us to teach" — that is, it makes them more effective as teachers.

By assenting to a cookie-cutter seniority system of remuneration, the public school system has drained the practical reason for teachers to strive to be uniquely effective in this way (although many clearly continue to see moral and emotional reasons), so it's understandable that they'd develop the sense that they ought to be collectively entitled to a well-stocked supply closet courtesy of the taxpayers.

With that word, I've likely given those who share Mike's perspective an "A-ha!" moment, so the moment is opportune to insist that he is incorrect. To the extent that I make my arguments in terms of the "taxpayer," it is implicit that the complaint is against the failure to realize value, which is to say, the interest of the students. Honestly, my opinion has changed on this matter as I've listened to teachers, administrators, and school committee members talk as if the only financial options are to increase revenue or to cut programs and other direct benefits to students, and as I've collected data for charts like these.

From 2000 to 2007, Rhode Island's per-pupil expenditures increased 40% on instructional teachers and 242% on retiree benefits while per-pupil spending on instructional materials decreased 9%. If the adults who have been soaking up our ever-increasing investment in education find it necessary to cover expenses that districts can no longer afford, it strikes me as, well, not worthy of front-page news coverage. At least no more worthy than would be a story about carpenters in search of good deals on router bits or copy editors looking for sales on reference books.

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

Would you equally argue that a nurse should buy the syringes she uses to administer injections? Should the restaurant manager buy napkins he offers to his customers? Should the cost of fuel to fly a plane come out of the salary of the pilot?

There are the extra, unnecessary supplies that teachers may choose to buy. But there are those basic necessities, such as paper, pencils, and BOOKS that should be supplied by the school district in the same way that a police officer is provided with a gun, ammunition, and a patrol car.

While you listed the supplies that fill up your van, you neglected to respond to the 5-6 years of educational investment teachers are required to have. And though not disposable, it must regularly be updated and replenished.

Posted by: mikeinri at August 13, 2009 10:41 PM

No comments on trends in budgeting? That's really the heart of the matter. If in a public healthcare industry salaries and benefits begin squeezing out budgets for supplies, you might see employees picking up some of the slack.

Having acquired a college degree, though, I'm not really cowed by the invocation of their cost. Some percentage of carpenters took courses at the beginning, too. More to the point, if a prospective teacher attends a state school, the expense needn't be more than I've spent on tools and a van (which I pay to fuel, by the way).

But remember, I didn't used to argue this way on school supplies. Context matters.

Posted by: Justin Katz at August 14, 2009 4:40 AM

Hey Mike, I know you're a frequent critic of the teachers union, but how about going back and asking them to negotiate for more money for classroom supplies? Oh, how do they do that? How about giving back about $4,000 of each health insurance buyout. So instead of approximately $5,000 per person for a family plan (of which 103 took in Cumberland) they get $1,000 and the remainder goes to your books, pencils, folders, paper, etc.?

Yeah, good luck with that. As long as the teachers are still pocketing such benefits as $5,000 for a health insurance buyout, I don't think there's much sympathy to buy some pencils and paper. It sure sounds stupid that teachers have to do this, but once you get a full picture of the compensation package, it all gets a bit clearer.

Posted by: Patrick at August 14, 2009 7:55 AM

Could not agree with you more Patrick. I've been against the buyouts for some time. Would you believe that if spouses are teachers in town, one takes the insurance and the other takes the buyout? Our district cut the buyout amount significantly this year, but the money didn't go to supplies. That line was cut again as well. I also voted for a pay freeze this year, but wasn't in the majority.

We often blame the unions, which deserve much of it. But more and more I see the bureaucrats as deserving of much of the blame. They spend more on programs, new hires and positions, and offer little if any meaningful reform ideas. My town educates about 3000 students with, perhaps, 300 faculty. Our administration has its own building! Ridiculous.

Speaking of Cumberland, someone finally woke up and realized how much money is spent on custodial services. Poor custodial services at that. Other communities should follow that lead.

Justin, exactly where can you get a bachelors degree and teacher certification for $10,000? Must we try to minimize that investment?

According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants, nurse practitioner salaries rose from around $52,000 to more than $81,000 in just ten years. Pharmacists salaries have nearly doubled in the same period. The Health Careers Journal claims that nurses salaries have grown by nearly 50% in the last decade. Why aren't these "squeezing out budgets for supplies"? Because we are paying more...far more...for healthcare. Thus, today's debate on healthcare reform rages. Now will you argue that nurses should buy their own syringes to save you and me money?

You pay to fuel your van? How do you think I get to work? I think you've been arguing with Pat for too long. ;)

Posted by: mikeinri at August 14, 2009 8:34 AM

Mike, if the union did give up money in the buyouts and let the administration put it to other use, I'm guessing that the other use was still a benefit to the union. Or the union was given some other benefit in return for that. I've never heard of a negotiating union to ever agree to "Oh, you can just take that away from us and do whatever you want with it. Nope, we don't want anything in return." So either the union negotiated that the money saved from those insurance buyouts went to another benefit or that's one really, really inept union negotiating team.

And I apologize for any sarcasm that seems to be directed at you. It's not. It's directed at the situation. I completely understand your history of viewpoints and your conservatism is certainly a lone wolf in the woods of your profession.

Posted by: Patrick at August 14, 2009 8:51 AM

Mike is more evidence that those who label teachers as a bunch of raving liberals are full of it. I've been in unions that have had their share of conservatives, and we were able to work together despite sociopolitical differences for our and the workplace's good.

Posted by: rhody at August 14, 2009 4:54 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

Important note: The text "http:" cannot appear anywhere in your comment.