State Superintendent Mark Johnson said Thursday that he’s disappointed critics are describing his proposal to give teachers $400 to buy school supplies as a “shell game” and “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
“It’s a shame that people would just jump to conclusions,” Johnson said during a State Board of Education (SBE) meeting. “I know it’s a part of what happens in Raleigh.”
Johnson’s remarks followed comments by SBE member Patricia Willoughby who used the idiom “robbing Peter to pay Paul” to describe the proposal during a board discussion about the plan, Senate Bill 580.
“My daddy was a Methodist minister and used to talk about robbing Peter to Paul,” Willoughby said. “That’s kind of an example here.”
Under SB 580, announced Wednesday by Johnson and State Sen. Andy Wells, (R- Catawba), nearly $40 million in state money allocated for districts to purchase school and classroom supplies would be given to teachers who would buy their own.
Teachers would use the ClassWallet app to spend the $400 or to claim reimbursements for money they spend out-of-pocket.
The discussion about the SB 580 spilled into the SBE’s monthly business meeting after Lisa Godwin, the 2017 Teacher of the Year who sits on the board, explained why she changed her mind about supporting the bill.
Godwin said she was initially “hooked” because she believed the plan would be funded with new state money, something for which she’d lobbied.
“That’s what I thought I was getting,” Godwin said.
But after learning Senate Bill 580 would be funded with money the state already gives districts to pay for school supplies, Godwin skipped a press conference Johnson called to announce the plan. Godwin was listed as a participant on a news release about the event.
“I have to stand on my conviction,” Godwin said. “If I don’t think it’s good for teachers and students, I can’t support it.
Willoughby said the flare up over funding for supplies highlights the need to take advantage of the varied experiences of board members before unveiling such a proposal.
“A lot of times we make better decisions when we talk about things collectively before something just gets rolled out,” Willoughby said.
Willoughby took issue with Wells who accused school districts of misspending state school supply allocations.
“That’s not fair to them without some input into how their spending that money,” Willoughby said. “I would say moving forward, working collaboratively works better than taking off and doing something individually.”
Meanwhile, Johnson, facing questions from board members, noted that a request to lawmakers for additional money for supplies has been made.
“I have requested new money and this board has requested new money and those conversations are ongoing,” Johnson said.
Cecilia Holden, director of legislative affairs for the board, said the request for the board totals $18 million in new dollars for instructional supplies, and it’s supported by Johnson.
Currently, the state allocates roughly $50 million for school supplies to North Carolina’s school districts. If SB 580 is approved, more than $37 million would be redistributed to teachers.
Godwin, an Onslow County elementary school teacher, said Wednesday that she’s concerned SB 580 would weaken the buying power of school districts, which are able to negotiate discounts by buying in bulk.
She also worries that the $400 won’t carry school teachers through and entire year.
Godwin said the $700 a year she now receives to purchase supplies for about 24 students isn’t enough.
The North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) weighed in on the bill Thursday.
“This bill does nothing to really help relieve teachers from dipping into their own pockets to pay for much-needed supplies for themselves and their students,” said NCAE President Mark Jewell. “Clearly there is a need to provide a school supply stipend for teachers, who spend several hundred dollars annually of their own money, but the State Superintendent [Johnson] is rolling out a plan that just redistributes money from the currently underfunded instructional materials allotment for school districts.”
Jewell said SB 580 needs work.
“What is needed is a solid plan to appropriate adequate funding in order for our students and educators to have the supplies and resources they need,” Jewell said. “North Carolina currently ranks 39th in the country in per-pupil funding and continues to lag behind by more than $2,300 per student behind the national average.”
SBE Chairman Eric Davis said the SB 580 has shined a light on the desperate needs of teachers.
“If nothing else, that’s what this bill has done,” Davis said. “It’s exposed how our districts are starving for resources all the way down to our teachers.”