Maine teachers spend millions of their own dollars on classroom basics

Maine’s teachers spent at least $4.2 million out of their own pockets on basic school supplies in 2016, the most recent year for which we have data, illustrating the inadequate public resources dedicated to educating the next generation of Mainers. Instead of asking educators, who are already underpaid, to foot the bill for the essentials needed to educated Maine students, the state should take steps to adequately fund public classrooms.

Public education supports a strong economy and benefits all members of society. For students to succeed regardless of their parents’ income or their ZIP code, schools need to be well-stocked with books, school supplies and the tools and equipment necessary for education.

Teachers throughout Maine are being forced to pick up the slack caused by underfunding. The IRS publishes statistics on the number of Mainers who claim a $250 educator expense deduction on their annual federal income tax returns. In 2016, 16,610 Mainers claimed the deduction. That’s more than 95 percent of eligible educators, according to Census Bureau data.

Maine teachers deducted $4.2 million through the educator expense deduction in 2016, meaning they spent at least that much on school supplies — and likely more. The deduction is capped at $250 per teacher, so data on the deduction don’t give us the full extent of spending on school supplies. But a national survey by the US Department of Education found that the true figure nationally is an average of $479 per teacher.

We can get a sense of what teachers buy for their classrooms and their students by looking at another dataset. is a nonprofit crowdfunding site for public school teachers. These projects give us some indication of the unmet funding needs faced by Maine teachers.

For the 2015-2016 school year, Maine teachers asked for nearly $600,000 to help with 957 projects. Requests came from teachers in roughly half the state’s school districts. Two-thirds of requests were for projects in the core subject areas of language and math. Nearly half of the money requested was to buy books and supplies, while 40 percent was to buy technology, indicating a challenge many schools face in keeping classroom equipment up-to-date.

Some of the pitches to potential donors from Maine teachers drive home the scale of the funding shortage in Maine classrooms. For example:

“My students need basic supplies, so they can focus on learning in math, not on if they have a pencil.” – Mrs. Netzer, Princeton Elementary School, ME

In Maine, a teacher shortage threatens the future of our entire system of public education. Teachers are paid less than other, similarly educated college graduates, and pressure to buy the school supplies their students need with their own money only exacerbates the disincentive to enter teaching as a profession.

No matter how generous teachers are with their own income, a better solution exists: Adequately funding public school with public funds. Maine voters in 2004 and 2016 voted to make the state Legislature fund 55 percent of the cost of public schools with state funds. The second referendum even created new revenue through a surcharge on the wealthiest Mainers to pay for it. The Legislature has never met that core commitment demanded by voters. In 2017, lawmakers repealed the surcharge in a budget that shortchanged Maine’s schools yet again.

Proper education funding would ensure no Maine student lacks the tools they need to learn, and that no teacher must give up part of their paycheck to meet society’s core commitment to educating students.

Note: An earlier version of this blog post contained an error. Maine teachers sought $600,000 in crowdfunding through in the 2015-2016 school year, not $6,000,000.