This year, Maine’s public school teachers will spend $5.2 million — an average of $356 per teacher — to keep their classrooms well stocked with school supplies.
That’s according to a new report from the Economic Policy Institute, which calculated teacher spending in all 50 states using survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
The phenomena of teachers dipping into their own pockets for classroom supplies is not new. EPI’s analysis shows even greater out-of-pocket costs for teachers than MECEP analysis conducted last year, using a different methodology, pegged spending at $4.2 million annually.
Out-of-pocket spending on supplies by teachers is a response to several pressures facing public educators, including underfunding of public schools and the needs of students from low-income families who can’t afford to purchase their own supplies.
Maine’s public schools have been underfunded for years, and that lack of resources affects some schools more than others. Teachers in chronically under-resourced schools, which also tend to have higher levels of low-income students, are hit twice by a lack of funding at the district level.
First, underfunding increases the demand on teachers to dip into their own funds to keep their classrooms adequately stocked with pencils, paper, books, and other necessities. Second, those same teachers are likely to earn lower pay than teachers in more affluent districts. Maine’s minimum starting salary for public school teachers is currently $30,000 a year, and in 2018, one in ten teachers statewide earned $36,000 a year or less while one in four earned $43,000 or less. (The living wage for a family of two working parents with a child is estimated at $55,655.)
Low salaries make it hard for teachers to make ends meet for their own families, let alone give extra support to their students. MECEP analysis of data from the Current Population Survey’s Food Security Supplement finds that between 2013 and 2017, 8.4 percent of teachers in Maine lived in food insecure households — nearly twice the rate for all Mainers with a bachelor’s degree. This hardship reflects the reality that teachers earn significantly less than other professionals with comparable education levels. EPI estimates Maine teachers face a 21.5 percent wage gap.
It’s a testament to the dedication of Maine’s educators that they are so giving even as they themselves are often underpaid. But it shouldn’t be this way. Education is meant to be a public good, one that benefits all of us and for which we all pitch in to ensure adequate resources. That teachers are having to paper over gaps in funding is a sign of a broken system.
The two-year budget enacted by lawmakers this year increased funding for Maine’s schools, but still fell well short of the minimum funding requirements approved several times over by voters. This year, schools are missing $98 million in required state funding. Meanwhile, hundreds of Maine teachers turn to platforms like Donors Choose to ask strangers to help pay for everything from computers to chairs.
Public education should be a top priority for any society, and it needs to be funded like one. Moving forward, lawmakers should re-commit themselves to teachers and students alike by finally fully funding Maine’s schools.
 Calculation of total amount spent based on Maine Department of Education estimate of 14,684 classroom teachers in Maine public schools in 2018.
 MECEP’s prior report used data from the Internal Revenue Service on the amount claimed by teachers for the Educator Expense Deduction, which allows teachers to claim some of their out-of-pocket classroom expenses on their income tax filing. The deduction is capped at $250 per educator so it likely undercounts the actual amount spent by teachers each year, explaining the difference between our estimate and EPI’s. The amount of the Educator Expense Deduction depends on a teacher’s effective federal tax rate. Data from the Maine Department of Education indicates the average teacher salary in Maine is $52,829 annually; With those earnings, a teacher who spent up to the $250 deduction cap on classroom supplies would receive a credit worth just $22.
 The Maine Legislature in 2019 enacted a law to gradually lift the minimum teacher salary to $40,000 per year by the 2022-2023 school year.