September 24, 2013 |

Back to School: why not give parents a $95 voucher for supplies?

A Spokesman-Review editorial recently noted the awkward summer ritual of teachers, sometimes assisted by parents and charities, having to spend their own money to provide classroom supplies. As the editorial notes, “The problem is that lawmakers have underfunded basic education for so long.” Two things are surprising about this statement.

First, it is surprising that the long-term policy of underfunding basic education has occurred under a series of liberal governors, all of whom said that funding education was their top priority. Governor Gary Locke said he wanted to be known as the Education Governor, and both Governors Gregoire and Inslee said that providing funding for classrooms is their top priority.

Second, it is surprising that in public education, but not other professions, the practice of failing to provide basic workplace supplies for front-line employees is tolerated and excused. Does UPS make its delivery drivers buy their own gas? Do office workers have to bring their own pens and printer paper to work? Of course not.

As a policy analyst, it struck me as odd that school administrators receive billions of dollars a year in public funds to carry out the essential mission of educating children, yet they consistently tell us they are chronically short of money. Wouldn’t it be odd if Department of Transportation officials told road workers they had to bring their own shovels? If that happened, there would be a major public scandal, and an immediate demand that managers who are unable to budget for basics be held accountable.

Just one tenth of the money added to the education budget this session would buy a year’s worth of supplies for every public school student in the state. Only in public education do district managers short their employees on basic supplies and make teachers spend their own money on classroom needs, or seek charity to fill the gap.

In public education there is little accountability for how money is used. Every public school parent knows “The List,” bags of classroom supplies parents are expected to deliver on the first day of school.

As one Mom told lawmakers earlier this year, “We gave Sharpies to my kids’ teacher for Christmas. I mean come on. The PTA buys disinfectant for the computer lab. We have to provide our own trash can liners when we hold an event. That is crazy.”

Even after public school families, private school families and all their neighbors have sacrificed to pay millions in property taxes for the schools, teachers have to pay out of pocket for the basic tools of their profession.

As a solution, why don’t school districts provide public school parents with a classroom supplies voucher of, say, $95.00 a year to make sure children have what they need to arrive at school ready to learn?

Education officials should make sure parents and teachers have everything they need to help children learn now, before they direct money to other parts of the budget. As the Spokesman-Review rightly put it, “What could be more basic...?”

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