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South Dakota's viral teachers cash grab video is too on the nose

For this educator, the South Dakota 'dash for cash' video was nothing short of a punch in the gut.

It was tweeted out as a fun local story: a promotion at a South Dakota hockey game in which helmeted teachers competed to grab dollar bills for school supplies from a $5,000 pile dumped on the ice. The reaction online was swift: Far from a feel-good story, this video of desperate educators fighting over cash was in fact a depressingly on-the-nose reflection of society’s twisted priorities.

For this educator, it was nothing short of a punch in the gut.

It’s impossible for me to see those teachers scrambling on their hands and knees as anything other than a terrible metaphor.

It’s impossible for me to see those teachers scrambling on their hands and knees as anything other than a terrible metaphor. Teachers have been quite literally scrambling for years because of the persistent underfunding of schools and astounding income inequality, which produces mind-blowing poverty in one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

But it’s not news that many teachers fund classroom supplies from their paychecks. Outlets periodically publish estimates of how much educators spend, ranging from $479 to $750 a year. For teachers setting up their first classrooms and paying off university debt, these costs are consequential: The median entry-level teaching salary is less than $46,000; the average starting teacher salary for 2019-20 was around $41,000.

Out-of-pocket dollars often buy basics like pencils, paper and whiteboard markers or books for classroom libraries. When the pandemic arrived, the majority of teachers say they were forced to pay for masks and other PPE. But teachers were already providing more than just traditional school supplies, as anthropologist Catherine Lutz and I learned from teachers we profiled for our book “Schooled.” We found this was especially true in districts where many students grow up in poverty. Ulla Tervo-Desnick collected outerwear so all her first graders could take recess in chilly Minnesota. In South Dakota, Glorianna UnderBaggage kept a cache of snacks for the Pine Ridge Reservation students she was helping graduate who came to school hungry and unable to focus.

We don’t believe these are rare examples. In 2015, the number of public schoolchildren in low-income households reached 50 percent, according to a report released by the Southern Education Foundation. Though the most recent census showed improvement since the 2008 recession, it also revealed continued widespread poverty, with 11 million American children, disproportionately children of color, below the poverty line.

When they aren’t paying for supplies themselves, teachers often raise funds from local groups and parents or post fundraisers on websites like DonorsChoose, where students and teachers have raised $1.2 billion since 2000. Many teachers will do nearly anything to get what their students need, as the South Dakota cash grab video so starkly displayed.

Before the pandemic, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, and despite a robust economy and stock market, more than half of states had failed to restore education budgets to pre-2008 levels. Many state governments — the largest source of education funding — were providing far fewer dollars per pupil than they once had. How we fund schools is highly inequitable, reproducing inequality.

In “Schooled,” teachers talked about furlough days that kept students out of school, about the loss of vital classroom aides who helped struggling students, and about increased class sizes that made it more difficult to reach every child. The day we visited Lindsey McClintock’s third grade class in Arizona, a substitute “shortage” created by low sub pay meant she had to take in a sick colleague’s students. Underfunding loads teachers with extra duties; McClintock had new ones as a crossing guard. Teacher pay, low for professionals with advanced degrees, means many take second jobs or move on to more lucrative careers, as McClintock did shortly after we met.

When the pandemic arrived, teachers were already stretched too thin. That’s why there is now such danger of a teacher shortage and districts are pursuing various ways of staving off teacher exhaustion in light of a host of pandemic-related stresses — sometimes in ways that are counter to student interests. Because schools can’t fix what society has broken.

Raising money for schools can’t be the job of teachers. It should be the job of our elected officials, who invariably campaign on platforms of improving education. The federal government has stepped up with some pandemic-related emergency funding; more permanent solutions are needed. If the Build Back Better plan, which includes funds for schools, isn’t passed, child tax credits will expire, and the uplift of millions of children out of poverty could become a brief memory.

Our leaders’ historical failure to lead — their failure to raise and allocate sufficient revenue to invest adequately in schools, to plan for and protect against economic swings and other disasters, and to establish systems to fund schools equitably — has put teachers in the constant position of scrambling for resources. Teachers are remarkably successful at this extracurricular skill — but they shouldn’t have to use it.