Tale of the tape
If you find yourself charged with a crime and can’t afford an attorney, one will be provided to you; if you can’t afford your utility bills, support programs exist; if you can’t work, unemployment assistance is available.
But if you’re a child in North Carolina whose family can’t afford all of your school supplies, well, you’re out of luck.
Out of luck, that is, unless you have a teacher like Carla Brookshire, or one of the thousands of others across the country who spend an average of $500 a year out of their own pockets on the basics needed by every student in every school in every town in America.
Adding insult to injury, North Carolina no longer has a sales tax free holiday weekend, meaning the state is taxing the generosity of Brookshire and teachers like her.
Now, legislators and candidates in this year’s general election are struggling to define their positions on education generally, and out-of-pocket expenses specifically amidst contrasting political philosophies and continuing budget strife. What they’re finding is that there’s no easy answer.
At a local office supply store in Waynesville, Brookshire slowly pushes a big red plastic cart over short grey Berber carpeting. She’s preparing for school this fall just as she’s done every year since 1994 — by buying school supplies for her neediest students.
According to www.census.gov, in 2014 between 26 and 32 percent of Haywood County’s children lived below the poverty line — far above the national average of 21.7 percent, but not nearly as bad as Washington County in northeastern N.C. where rates regularly top 40 percent.
Sorting through bins of packaged pencils, Brookshire’s trying to find the greatest quantity for the lowest price. Rejecting a pack costing 50 cents as “too expensive,” she settles on one that costs 33 cents.
“I do love my job,” said Brookshire, an English teacher at Tuscola High School. “But no one — no one — gets into teaching for the money. A lot of students may have brothers and sisters who are starting back to school, or their parents are on a tight budget, or perhaps they need to wait for a payday, but there’s no money in family budgets sometimes for school supplies, because they can really add up.”
Brookshire would know; she said she spends about 1 percent of her yearly net income on school supplies each year, even going so far as to make targeted buying trips to score the best deals.
“Every year we vacation near Moorehead City, and they have a teacher’s store there, so I always use part of my vacation money on school supplies,” she said.
As Brookshire’s big red cart quickly fills with notebooks, notecards, post-its, pencils and tissues, she explains that it’s becoming more and more difficult to find everything she needs for what her family budget allows.
“We used to be able to deduct $250 on our taxes [for supplies], but they’ve cut that out,” she said. “And the tax-free holiday helped, but unfortunately they stopped that as well.
N.C.’s sales tax holiday was abolished in 2014, amidst a comprehensive tax overhaul by the Gov. Pat McCrory-led Republicans in the state legislature.
Neighboring states, however, still have theirs; Georgia and Tennessee held tax-free weekends July 30-31, and Virginia and South Carolina will hold theirs Aug. 5-7.
“I could probably go to South Carolina, but the price of gas to go wouldn’t be worth my while,” said Brookshire. “One of my teacher friends, that’s exactly what she’s doing — she’s going to South Carolina to buy her supplies because she lives closer to the border.”
In a region known more for whiskey smugglers evading taxes by racing back and forth across state lines, the notion of a teacher slipping over to the Palmetto State to buy school supplies out of her own pocket is almost laughable — except it’s not a joke. Teachers, Brookshire said, don’t really have a choice.
“When you’re the person in the classroom with that student, you’re going to make sure that they have it. And that’s going to come out of your pocket,” she said. “It’s not OK for teachers to keep spending their personal money to bridge that gap between what the state should give us to ensure that students have the resources they need to be successful in school.”
But whose responsibility is it to pay for those notebooks, notecards, post-its, pencils and tissues?
In theory, this responsibility falls on the parents of the student; but when they can’t, don’t or won’t purchase supplies, teachers aren’t able to just press “pause” on the school year while waiting for students to show up ready to learn.
The state legislature hasn’t been much help either. According to the N.C. State Board of Education’s Department of Public Instruction, per-pupil expenditures have decreased from $8,522 in 2008 to $8,296 in 2016.
As with many things, however, the devil’s in the details. Although those figures represent only a 3 percent decrease over eight years, when adjusted for inflation 2008’s $8,296 expenditure would today be worth $9,540, meaning that expenditures in actual dollars have decreased by 12 percent.
As Brookshire begins emptying the contents of her big red cart onto the checkout counter, she asks if the store offers a teacher’s discount.
They don’t, but the cashier asks her if she’s a member of the store’s promotions club, which would earn her points toward discounts on supplies.
She’s not, she says.
The same 2015 survey that says teachers spend an average of $500 per year on supplies for students also says that 94 percent of teachers go out of their way to shop at stores that offer such discounts, but 71 percent are unwilling to divulge their Social Security numbers to join such promotional clubs.
Scanned and bagged, the 35 items she’s purchased today — including a $5 Rubik’s Cube for her daughter and a desktop calendar she called a “luxury” because of its purple-and-lime green floral pattern — set her back $89.30, including $5.84 in sales tax.
“Teachers are making more money in North Carolina than ever — much more. That is a simple fact,” said Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville. “A first-year teacher in Haywood County makes $50,837, including benefits.”
Presnell’s right, but her statement implies that the problem isn’t with the state’s lack of educational funding, instead suggesting that greedy teachers should be grateful to spend a small portion of their money on others — which is perplexing, coming from a party that consistently advocates for personal responsibility and rails against the “socialism” inherent in any system where taxpayers pay in but receive no direct benefit.
Presnell’s Democratic opponent in the Nov. 8 election, Rhonda Cole Schandevel, addressed the core of the issue.
“We simply cannot ask teachers to dig into their own pockets to cover the cost of basic supplies,” she said. “I will work with my colleagues in the House of Representatives to find out where we can work together to make sure that our students have the resources they need without making our teachers pay for them out of their own pocket.”
Schandevel also wants to bring back N.C.’s sales tax holiday.
Mike Clampitt, R-Bryson City, — running against Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, — said he supports the idea of bringing back the income tax deduction as well as reinstituting the state’s sales tax holiday.
Presnell does not.
“North Carolinians are paying less taxes all year, not paying more all year and getting a break on a single day — and that includes teachers,” she said.
Jane Hipps, a Waynesville Democrat running for state Senate against Franklin Republican incumbent Jim Davis, feels that eliminating the holiday hurts N.C.’s middle class.
“It’s another example of Republicans prioritizing the wealthy and the well-connected instead of hard-working North Carolina families,” she said.
Carla Brookshire comes from a hard-working North Carolina family. She said that in addition to her full-time teaching job, she teaches online at night for extra cash, and that she’s lucky her husband also has a good job.
As she stands in the parking lot of the office supply store, holding four plastic bags full of supplies — and with that “luxury” calendar tucked under her arm — she says she really doesn’t mind spending the money on her students.
But she does seem frustrated that the legislature is content to let her.
“In my opinion, public education is the best bang for your taxpayer buck,” she said. “We can invest in these students now, we can invest in these children and their futures and give them the tools they need to become productive North Carolina citizens and increase their success and help us economically, or we can not give them those tools and pay later.”
What Brookshire really wants is not the $10,000 she’s spent over the course of her career on supplies for her students; what she wants from legislators is a little respect.
“I want for our state to value public education,” she said. “I want them to value our students. I want them to value our teachers. I want them to value this investment – this obligation that we have to educate these children and give them a brighter future.”