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Republicans Push Centralized System For Teachers To Buy Supplies; CMS Has Concerns

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Updated 11:10 a.m.

North Carolina Republicans want to provide $400 to each public school teacher to purchase construction paper, glue sticks and other classroom supplies through a new process that sidesteps local districts.

Superintendent of Public instruction Mark Johnson and GOP education budget-writers unveiled legislation on Wednesday that would direct the money to more than 93,000 classroom teachers. Starting this fall, teachers would be debited or reimbursed through an electronic app for their retail purchases.

Parents of current or former K-12 students are likely to recall routine pleas from teachers or schools to donate supplies that schools couldn't afford. One lawmaker said state money currently going to all 115 school districts for these needs too often are being used for other priorities.

Under the plan, about $37.4 million of the $47.5 million earmarked in 2019 for instructional supplies, equipment and other materials would be allocated to teachers instead.

Johnson said he faced challenges getting enough copier paper for his classes while a high school teacher, often relying on help from outside groups or buying it himself. The North Carolina School Supplies Program would attempt to address the individual needs of teachers, he said.

"Teachers can be nimble and they can use these funds to buy what they need when they need it," Johnson said at a Legislative Building news conference. "If we truly want to put our money where our trust is, then let's show teachers we trust them to make the right decisions for their classrooms."

If the legislation becomes law — budget-writers from both chambers expressed support for the idea — eligible teachers would be allocated their portion through an electronic account called ClassWallet. Teachers at traditional public schools would automatically receive the $400 electronic stipend. Charter school participation would be optional.

CMS leaders have many concerns about the legislation, says Charles Jeter, the district’s government relations coordinator. He says it would "transfer who controls the spending to the detriment of teachers they’re trying to assist.”      

For example, Jeter says CMS officials believe teachers would lose buying power they have through the district.

“What this (legislation) says is every individual teacher gets $400 to spend on anything that’s on the approved list with no input from anyone else.  And, so it gets to the problem that you lose the economy of scale. Ultimately it will cost teachers,” Jeter said.

Under the ClassWallet system, purchases at large retailers would be completed instantly, using the stipend. Teachers would be reimbursed for purchases at smaller stores by uploading receipts. Unused money at the end of the school year would return to the state. Similar electronic supply stipend programs occur in New Mexico and Florida. Johnson said the app's use is free to the state.

Johnson said the app also would allow state officials to collect supply data to evaluate better future funding needs. For example, early-grade teachers may need more supplies for projects and other activities.

The legislation would mean less money going directly to school districts for supplies, down to about $10 million. Sen. Andy Wells, a Catawba County Republican and bill sponsor, said some districts aren't spending the full amount anyway for these needs.

"The short answer is bureaucrats used the money to pay for other things on their to-do list," Wells said. He didn't describe any specific situations.

Jeter says CMS spent $13.3 million on classroom supplies this year, but only $4.6 million of that was from the state.

Leanne Winner, a lobbyist for the North Carolina School Boards Association, said later Wednesday she's not aware of any school districts using these funds for unintended purposes. The Department of Public Instruction's spending manual says schools already can use the instructional supply money to conduct PSAT assessments in grades 8-10, Winner wrote in an email.