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Richard B. Levine/Showcase Pix/Newscom

Show me the money

Poverty | Very little of the thousands spent per pupil in New York City actually makes it to the classroom

Issue: "Wealth and poverty," March 14, 2009

Kay, a New York City public-school teacher, and her six disabled students get one box of Kleenex every two months. In a state that is running a deficit to spend $14,884 to educate each pupil, Kay's school still has to ration paper towels, cleaning wipes, and soap. "I have some broken crayons, lots of construction paper, and they give out glue and markers," Kay said. "But that's about the extent of it."

"Kay," who was granted permission by WORLD not to use her real name for her fear of retribution, teaches severely disabled middle-schoolers in a low-income district. When she walked into her classroom for the first time two years ago, most of what she found was useless: "I inherited an assortment of books that were completely inappropriate for the students that I teach, some broken toys, and supplies from the 1960s." She found she'd have to spend about $900 to $1,000 of her own money each year-less than some teachers but far more than the $150 the Department of Education allots her for supplies.

When Kay, whose passion for her vocation bubbles over into conversations with near-strangers, asks her parents for care packages, she puts school supplies on the list. She buys her students' afternoon snacks, sanitary pads for the girls, and toothpaste, toothbrushes, and washcloths to help her students learn proper hygiene. One student wears diapers, which Kay also buys if the parents forget.

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And those are just the basics. Because Kay's students are hands-on learners, she needs special supplies: a laminator and a mini-kitchen to teach them about cooking, for instance. She never has enough Velcro for the pictures she uses to help them with their daily schedules. Her Xerox machine is black-and-white, so when she shows her students a picture they can't relate it to what they see in the real world.

And a $4 billion deficit is gutting the New York City budget for fiscal year 2010. Governor David Paterson proposed a 3 percent cut in school funding for the 2009-2010 state budget, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed slashing 20,000 city jobs-meaning 14,000 Department of Education employees. New York City received $1.1 billion from the stimulus package to bail out the education budget, but that will just keep teachers in their jobs, not put Kleenex in their classrooms.

Marcus Winters, education expert for the Manhattan Institute, said it's "really odd" that teachers still lack basic supplies. The $14,884 price tag New York pays is the highest in the nation and far outraces the national average of $8,000. "So clearly, adding more money might help solve that problem, but it might not if the problem is a fundamental problem with how the schools are spending the resources that they already have," Winters said. "It's only going to help if we change the way that we spend the new money."

Thalia Theodore, northeast executive director for Donors Choose and former teacher in the Bronx, said teachers don't always get the supplies they need because schools allocate resources from the top down, sometimes beginning at the district level. Donors Choose (www.donorschoose.org) tries to meet those needs by letting donors fund individual teacher projects, from buying a CD player to Lemony Snicket books to a projector. Kay has applied for two grants through Donors Choose-one to buy the laminator and another for the microwave and mini-refrigerator she needed to teach cooking skills.

Theodore is careful to note that Donors Choose does not judge education policy; but donors "recognize that part of their democratic exercise is supporting classrooms with their private dollars until public dollars actually get allocated fairly."

Kay worked every day for three months to teach a 14-year-old to memorize his phone number. When he finally recited it, his mother sobbed because she didn't think it was possible. But Kay stresses that her kids are capable of learning: "It's just that it takes a lot longer and it takes more energy and resources." And while the classroom may be short on Kleenex until more of that $14,884 reaches classrooms, private donors can help her-maybe not with supplies that are necessary for perfect test scores, she said, but "necessary for my kids' success in life."

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