MINOT, N.D. — Most school teachers have to buy supplies for their classrooms with money from their own pockets.

It’s happening nationally. In a study released in 2018 the U.S. Department of Education found 94 percent of teachers had gone out of pocket for things they needed for the classroom, with the average amount coming in at $479. About 7 percent of teachers reported spending more than $1,000.

It’s happening in North Dakota too. A representative of the Bismarck Education Association told Bismarck Tribune reporter Blair Emerson teachers in their area are spending anywhere from $200 to $1,500 per year, with elementary school teachers paying the most.

It doesn’t matter where you live, teachers at your local public schools are spending their own money to purchase things to help educate our kids.

Teachers aren’t entirely without recourse. There is a federal tax deduction available worth $250 per year, but that’s a paltry sum compared to the figures I’ve already mentioned.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

Earlier this year a state lawmaker — Rep. Matt Ruby, a Republican from Minot — introduced legislation to address this problem. His bill, HB1208, would have made a $500,000 appropriation during the current biennium to a fund administered by the Department of Public Instruction. Teachers could have submitted receipts to this fund for reimbursements of up to $200 for supply purchases.

The idea went over like a lead balloon. It failed in the House with 72 no votes and only 20 yes.

The opposition didn’t exactly make a compelling case against it.

Critics said this is a local issue. Except, given how widespread this problem is both in North Dakota and across the nation, it isn’t a local issue at all. It’s a common problem in need of a common solution.

They also argued the amount Ruby proposed appropriating was insufficient. Some estimated it would take a two-year appropriation of as much as $5 million to truly address this need.

They’re not wrong. In fact, that number is probably too low. If we use Department of Education estimate for average out-of-pocket costs for teachers, and multiply it by the 8,977 public school teachers employed in our state in the 2018-2019 school year, we arrive at a total of nearly $4.3 million per school year.

Using that figure would mean an $8.6 million appropriation in North Dakota’s two-year budget cycle.

That’s a big number, but hardly an argument against Ruby’s solution. It illustrates the scope of the problem, and demonstrates just how badly a solution is needed.

"I can't think of another public employee that pays out of pocket for stuff like that," Ruby told Emerson.

We cannot allow this situation to persist. We can help teachers by giving them what amounts to a budget for classroom supplies.

Ruby says if voters send him back to Bismarck this election cycle he’ll keep pursuing this issue.

Good for him.

Let’s hope more of his colleagues join him so when we’re taking our kids to school in the future we can look their teachers in the eye.

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.