The Hidden Costs of Teaching - ASCD
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March 1, 1993

The Hidden Costs of Teaching

There's another educational expense that's not often tallied: teachers who spend their own money to support classroom activities.

More than $180 billion is spent annually to support public elementary and secondary education nationwide, according to figures from United States Department of Education (Johnson 1989). It takes only a brief review of the literature on school finance to appreciate the massive fiscal problems faced by school systems and communities across the nation (Freeman and Grant 1987; Odden 1986, 1988; Ornstein 1989, 1990; Brimelow 1986; Hoffman 1990; Gibbs 1991; American Federation of Teachers 1991). Even business and industry are investing heavily in basic education in an attempt to assure a viable workforce (Gordon 1990, Ward 1991).

Yet there is another type of education spending that may seem small by comparison but is no less significant to the spender: Many teachers voluntarily use their own money to support their classroom work. When we found little in the literature on this subject, we decided to survey teachers in two western states to investigate the situation. Assuming that our survey sample is representative, we estimate teachers nationwide are spending more than $1 billion annually for their classrooms. 1

Who Replied?

In addition to asking 360 teachers how much they voluntarily spent per year for their classrooms, we gathered demographic data to see whether expenditures varied based on geographical setting (metropolitan, urban, or rural) or grade level (elementary, middle/junior high, or senior high). Respondents were also asked to share their feelings about spending their own money to support their teaching.

Eighty-one percent of teachers returned our survey, and several teachers not included in our sample even photocopied colleagues' surveys and returned them to us (though we could not include their responses in our analysis). As one teacher stated: It is unfortunate that in order to do the best job for our students, we must subsidize the public schools. It is impossible to do a good job—or even an adequate job—of teaching...with the materials provided by the school district. I don't like spending my own money, but I like shortchanging my students even less!

What They Spent

On average, the teachers surveyed spent $444 annually. The range of money teachers spent can be seen in Figure 1, which shows that 8 respondents reported spending no money at all while 31 respondents (approximately 11 percent of all respondents) spent more than $1,000. Of these, 25 spent between $1,000 and $1,999; two spent between $2,000 and $2,999; one spent between $3,000 and $3,999; and three spent between $4,000 and $5,000.

Figure 1. Distribution of Out-of-Pocket Spending


Our analysis revealed no statistically significant differences between expenditures in rural, urban, or metropolitan areas. However, a dollar-for-dollar comparative analysis revealed a substantial difference in spending by grade level. On average, elementary school teachers spent $511, middle/junior high teachers spent $298, and high school teachers spent $484 per year.

The amount spent by high school teachers came as something of a surprise since we initially predicted they would spend the least. However, their itemized expenses and comments revealed several important pieces of information. High school teachers often have to repeat purchases because they have several different classes per day and sometimes change classes entirely two times a year. Also, high school teachers logged some inordinately high costs for materials such as disks and printer paper because computer use is greater at their level. In addition, lab and shop classes and courses requiring equipment and expendable supplies (such as chemistry, physics, and even math) require expenditures beyond what the schools have been willing to support.

Teacher Comments

  • Outrage and frustration at public and administrative insensitivity to the lack of funds available to teachers to support their classroom work. As one teacher stated: I wish parents realized how much educators go without in order to provide money for the children they teach. Our own families give up a lot. If everyone contributed $20–$30 a year per child it would really help our supplies. I don't know another group of people who donate so much money for their job.

  • Recognition of the critical importance of teacher contributions to the effectiveness of instruction. A 29-year veteran captured the sentiments of many: In order to compete with the world around us, I feel I must keep up. I want to capture the students' attention and it cannot be done with what the district supplies. It's ridiculous!

  • Acceptance of a reality that teachers will always need to subsidize their teaching with out-of-pocket funds. Thirteen respondents (5 percent) indicated this practice was the price they paid to be in the profession. As one teacher observed: I feel that it is my responsibility as an educator to provide certain things for my students. If this means spending money out of my pocket then that's the way it has to be.

Though 11 teachers felt their schools provided adequate supplies and teaching aids, the overwhelming consensus of respondents was that school systems fall woefully short. Teachers believe it is up to them to voluntarily spend the money they need, and our data indicate that for the most part, teachers do spend their own money to fill in the gaps.


American Federation of Teachers. (1991). International Comparison of Public Spending on Education. Washington, D.C.: American Federation of Teachers.

Brimelow, P. (1986). “Are We Spending Too Much on Education?” Forbes 138, 14: 72–76.

Freeman, R. R., and F. D. Grant. (1987). “How We Increased Staff Attendance by 16% and Saved $156,000.” American School Board Journal 174, 92: 31.

Gibbs, N. (1991). “Starving the Schools.” Time 137, 15: 32–33.

Gordon, J. (1990). “Can Business Save the Schools?” Training 27, 8: 19–27.

Hoffman, G.H. (1990). Federal Support For Education: Fiscal Years 1980 to 1989. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Center for Education Statistics.

Johnson, F. (1989). Key Statistics for Public Elementary and Secondary Education: School Year 1989–1990. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Research and Improvement, NCES 90-032.

Odden, A. (1986). “Sources of Funding for Educational Reform.” Phi Delta Kappan 67, 5: 335–340.

Odden, A. (1988). “Financial Picture Improves for Schools.” NASSP Bulletin 72, 505: 39.

Ornstein, A.C. (1989). “Trimming the Fat, Stretching the Meat for 1990s School Budgets.” The School Administrator 9, 46: 20–21.

Ornstein, A.C. (1990). “School Budgets in the 1990s.” The Education Digest 55, 6: 15–16.

Ward, B. (1991). “Corporations and Kindergarten.” Sky Magazine 20, 4: 28–39.

End Notes

1 We estimated this figure by multiplying the average amount teachers spent in our survey ($444) by the total number of elementary and secondary public school teachers in America—2,359,941 (Johnson 1989). This equals $1,047,813,804.

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