Teaching Takes a Backseat to Infrastructure and Trimmings: Your Tax Dollars and the Public Schools

By Janice Barlow

After recently participating in a debate on why a $250 tax deduction for teachers to buy supplies was chopped out of the new tax bill by the House, I couldn’t let the real reason for the issue just rest. The Senate was generous enough to make it a $500 deduction, but it still needs to be reconciled with the House. It’s not about the $250, (which is merely a deduction, not a credit). 

It’s about why teachers shouldn’t be buying supplies for students at all – or parents for that matter. After all, doesn’t everyone pay a hefty tax to the school system as part of their property tax bill or built into their rent?

Yet, every year, the box department stores and pharmacies run big sales on school supplies for students and teachers to stock up.

I understand that some supplies are supplemental, unique to the student, and necessary to be purchased individually. I used to enjoy buying school supplies for myself when I was in college, and then for my sons when they were in private schools. But now, it seems that almost every supply needs to be provided by the student or the teacher in public schools.

When I was a substitute teacher on Fridays in Pinellas County, FL, in a Title X middle school, nearly all the supplies were to be brought in by the students. And of course, they almost always forgot to bring in their paper and pencils – basic supplies! But it never failed that many sneaked in cell phones which they were not supposed to have in class. This was a Title X school, mind you, which is a low income school. Yet, these kids had Smartphones.

Also, the textbooks were stored in the classroom for each class because the students would invariably forget them. The books could not leave the classroom. They could not even be kept in student lockers, because it would create an excuse for a student to want to go to get the book out of his locker during class. Another second set of books was passed out to each student at the beginning of the school year to keep at home to study! This was unheard of years ago, and it creates an environment of entitlement and decreased focus on responsibility, not to mention the cost of that second set of books. It was not just the case in Title X schools, but for the entire public school system. All of it.

This is where your tax dollars go.

Let’s also do a quick comparison of the buildings themselves. Thirty to forty years ago, school buildings were just cinder block and mortar. Plain hallways and industrial lockers spanned the hallways. Simple tables or desks were in each classroom, and teachers used chalkboards or white boards with erasable markers to write on. There was nothing special going on. The floors were tiled linoleum. The chairs were simple. Many schools didn’t have air conditioning. And yet, the schools produced scholars; students who scored high enough on the ACT and SAT exams to attain full scholarships to Universities throughout the country. Their numbers are no higher now.

New school buildings now look like modern corporate structures or college campuses. Why? Students only need to be learning, not feel like they are earning a salary. The impact of the surroundings should be minimal so that the teachers can bring out the best in the students themselves.

Now, classrooms are state of the art with magic whiteboards that are tied to Internet software (that often malfunctions), desks are upgraded to have outlets for PC’s, students often need to have iPads, which they sometimes play games on in class when they are supposed to be paying attention, and teachers must stick to pre-designed lesson plans with little room for creativity. They go deep in pocket to bring needed supplies for each project.

The land around the schools used to have a few trees and bushes, but nothing fancy; no big landscaping budget was incorporated into each school’s for the year. There were no corporate-like flower beds or fountains or statue parks and trails surrounding high schools like they do now. The athletic fields were simple, with simple bleachers for seats, no concession stands, and some even had port-a-potties brought in for games to keep people out of the school building itself.

Athletic uniforms were supplied by the schools and were often re-used from the previous season. There were often no practice uniforms. Kids just wore old uniforms that the school had on hand which were not usable for real games. There were no fund raisers. Tax dollars were able to cover the uniforms because they weren’t fancy and professional. They were basic. And yet, the schools produced star athletes.

Libraries were full of books. Now, libraries are called media centers filled with software, CD’s, DVD’s and other special equipment. I understand that they need to keep current. But the cost of what is in them is prohibitive and it’s not being utilitized. Students are not voluntarily using libraries any more now than they were 30 to 40 years ago, and I venture to say that it’s even less.

In the meantime, students in Asia sit in spartan classrooms and and all is supplied by the school, which is often just walls and a roof, and no lockers, and they are knocking it out of the park on test scores. Obviously, our dollars are not working.

The bottom line is that a generation or more ago, a person could go into a store and purchase some items and a student working there part time could ring them up at the register, and count out change for a $10 or $20 dollar bill without hesitation. Most students could spell reasonably well, and could read and understand grade level texts. But now?

I can’t say that things have gotten worse; it sure seems as if they have, but they certainly haven’t gotten better. The money being poured into the public school systems when considering the outcomes make a strong case for private schools and homeschooling.

The bottom line is that, in spite of it all, teachers and parents are still having to buy supplies and uniforms, participate in fundraisers, and foot an ever rising tax bill. I haven’t even discussed the bloated administrative level that most systems have in place.

Students aren’t getting smarter or more educated. They are just becoming more enabled and coddled.


Janice Barlow is a True Crime writer whose books are on Amazon under J. M. Barlow. She is researching a new book on the effects of agent orange on Vietnam veterans and their families.

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