The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 18, 2018

Striking teachers want better supplies. The data say those requests are justified

April 18, 2018

Striking teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky have brought national attention to their concerns about funding for public schools. In addition to demanding increased salaries and benefits, teachers have demanded increased funding for school supplies. And the data show those demands may be justified: spending on instructional materials has decreased more than 30 percent in Oklahoma and Kentucky over the past 15 years.

Research finds returns are high on investments for high-quality curricula (textbooks, workbooks, and software). In fact, switching to high-quality elementary math curricula has been found to be 40 times more cost effective than reducing classroom size. Further, choosing high-quality instructional materials can have as large an impact on student learning as teacher quality. Striking teachers understand the importance of high-quality materials.

Using data from the Common Core State Finance Survey, I find that national spending on instructional materials has decreased in real value 7 percent since the 2000–2001 school year. In Oklahoma and Kentucky, where teachers have posted photos of tattered textbooks and broken desks, spending per student (in inflation-adjusted dollars) is down 36 percent and 31 percent, respectively.

Nationally, spending on instructional materials began declining in the 2008–09 school year and started to recover in 2013–14, but still was 15 percent less than it was at its peak in 2007–08, just before the Great Recession began. In Oklahoma and Kentucky, the decline per student over that period was sharper, and spending on supplies in Kentucky was still dropping in 2014–15, the last year for which we have data.

change in expenditures on school supplies per student relative to 2000 to 2001 school year

And declining spending on instructional materials is not limited to Oklahoma and Kentucky. In 39 states, current funding per student for instructional materials is lower than it was in the 2008–09 school year as the Great Recession began. Oklahoma students have seen the largest decline, with funding falling $125 per student. Hawaii and Louisiana have also seen funding per student for supplies fall by over $100. Over this same period, spending on students in Washington, DC, has increased 61 percent, an increase of $106 per student.

Many schools have moved from using traditional textbooks to using online materials. These changes in methods might be allowing schools and districts to spend less on instructional materials. But about 25 percent of teachers responding to the 2010–11 Schools and Staffing Survey did not feel that they have the necessary materials available. Moreover, teachers have reported taking on hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars in out -of -pocket expenses to supplement curricula.

Teacher’s claims of declining funding for instructional materials (particularly in Kentucky and Oklahoma) are supported by evidence. This decline in funding per student occurred while many states implemented new instructional standards or revised existing ones. Other states should monitor how their spending on classroom resources has changed over time, both for the sake of students and for the sake of teacher satisfaction. 

In the second sentence of the last paragraph, "funding" was clarified to "funding per student." Updated on 04/18/2018.

Teachers rally at the state capitol on April 2, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Teachers are walking off the job after a $6,100 pay raise was rushed through the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin. Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images

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