This Teacher Is Suing Her District Over Working for Free, Buying School Supplies
Teachers everywhere have had to buy their own school supplies, or been asked to work beyond their contract hours. Now, a South Carolina teacher is taking those issues to court.
This summer, Shannon Burgess, a 6th grade English/language arts teacher, filed a lawsuit claiming that the Cherokee County school district required her to pay for necessary school supplies out of her own pocket and work for free at after-school events. The lawsuit is open for teachers across the state to join the class action.
“It has long been a pattern of practice throughout this nation and the state of South Carolina that school districts … have unconscionably and impermissibly shifted operating costs of the classrooms directly on the financial backs of our teachers,” the lawsuit reads.
John Reckenbeil, Burgess’s attorney, said he expects the litigation to reach class-action status in the start of the new year. While he can’t sign other teachers on until then, he said there has been interest, especially on the issue of school supplies.
This case isn’t saying that teachers shouldn’t have to pay for any supplies out of pocket, Reckenbeil said—but rather, they shouldn’t have to pay for supplies that are deemed essential to do their job.
“If a teacher is required to literally pay for copy paper, and they have to go make copies of tests that are mandatory under state law, … then I think that copy paper is going to fall under a category that is mandatory for a teacher to do their job,” he said. “It’s not going to be stuff that is arbitrary or stuff that they want to have, like orange thumbtacks for a Thanksgiving bulletin board.”
The lawsuit alleges that the district has a budget for supplies and materials, but Burgess was still asked to pay for items that would benefit her employer—which cut into her paycheck.
National data show that 94 percent of public school teachers spent their own money on classroom supplies without reimbursement during the 2014-15 school year. On average, these teachers spent $479. Many teachers told Education Week that they felt obligated to purchase supplies because otherwise, their students would go without.
‘Taking Advantage of Our Professionalism’
Burgess alleges that she was required to sell concessions at after-school sporting events—time that was outside of her contract hours and that she wasn’t paid for. She also claimed that her principal required all teachers to purchase a gift basket that would be auctioned off to benefit the parent-teacher organization.
In a statement provided to WIS News, the Cherokee County district said it could not comment on specific allegations, but it thanked teachers for their willingness to “go the extra mile” for their students.
But to Sherry East, the president of the South Carolina Education Association, this is an example of districts “taking advantage of our professionalism.” And it happens all the time, she said.
“Nobody was shocked” at the lawsuit, she said. Instead, educators thought, “someone finally is taking it to the next level. We get calls about similar things every day. Teachers are doing extra duties that are not academic duties. … A lot of teachers are buying their own paper.”
For instance, teachers are often asked to be present at after-school events, or even bake for fundraisers or events, said Lisa Ellis, a high school journalism teacher in Blythewood, S.C., and the founder of the grassroots teachers’ group, SCforED.
“Teachers always do what’s in the best interest of students, and so the status quo has been able to take advantage of that,” she said.
Poor working conditions are partially why so many teachers are leaving the profession, East said. Last year alone, more than 5,300 South Carolina teachers left the classroom.
“Teachers are like, ‘We’ve had enough. I just can’t do anything else for you,'” she said. “It’s time to stand up. … I hope [the lawsuit] will be an eye-opener for the whole state, that this isn’t an isolated incident, that it’s common practice.”
In May, thousands of teachers across the state of South Carolina left their classrooms to protest at the state legislature for a pay raise and smaller class sizes. The legislature raised teacher starting pay, gave an across-the-board 4 percent pay raise, and gave early-career teachers an up to 10 percent raise.
In the coming legislative session, East said the state education association’s priorities are an additional 5 percent across-the-board pay raise and improvements in working conditions. They’re asking for elementary teachers to get 30 minutes a day of duty-free time, lower class sizes, and fewer required tests.
“Teachers have been dumped on here for a long time,” she said. “You wouldn’t ask a mechanic to fix your car for free. … Yet we think it’s OK for teachers to do stuff all the time off the clock for free. All of the non-academic stuff that gets dumped on teachers is really starting to weigh” on us.
Reckenbeil said he hopes this lawsuit is a chance for teachers to get some relief without waiting for legislative action. The lawsuit is seeking an award of unpaid wages and restitution of money used to buy mandated items for all those in the class action.
“This is just really a point in time where [teachers] have to have an advocate fighting for them, and they’ve been getting screwed, I think,” he said.
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Just ahead of the back-to-school season, Amazon plans to make a major foray into the education technology market for primary and secondary schools, a territory that Apple, Google and Microsoft have heavily staked out.
Monday morning, Amazon said that it would introduce an online marketplace with tens of thousands of free lesson plans, worksheets and other instructional materials for teachers in late August or early September.
Called Amazon Inspire, the education site has features that may seem familiar to frequent Amazon shoppers. Search bar at the top of the page? Check. User reviews? Check. Star ratings for each product? Check.
By starting out with a free resources service for teachers, Amazon is establishing a foothold that could expand into a one-stop shopping marketplace — not just for paid learning materials, but for schools’ wider academic and institutional software needs, said Tory Patterson, co-founder of Owl Ventures, a venture capital fund that invests in ed tech start-ups.
“Amazon is very clearly positioning itself as a disrupter with this move,” Mr. Patterson said.
Amazon is joining other tech industry giants in a push to expand the use of technology in the public schools.
Last year, primary and secondary schools in the United States spent $4.9 billion on tablet, laptop and desktop computers, according to a report by Linn Huang, a research director at the International Data Corporation, a market research firm known as IDC. Schools bought 10.8 million Apple, Google Chrome and Microsoft Windows devices in 2015, he said.
Because its devices tend to cost more, Apple accounted for the largest slice of school computer sales, amounting to $2.2 billion, Mr. Huang said. By volume, however, Chromebooks — the inexpensive laptops that run on Google’s Chrome operating system — have taken schools by storm, accounting for more than five million devices bought last year, he said.
Even so, ed tech industry analysts said the growing market for digital educational materials, which Amazon is entering, is likely to prove much more valuable over time than the school computer market.
Already, nursery through high schools in the United States spend more than $8.3 billion annually on educational software and digital content, according to estimates from the Software and Information Industry Association, a trade group. That spending could grow significantly as school districts that now buy physical textbooks, assessment tests, professional development resources for teachers and administrative materials shift to digital systems.
In a phone interview, Rohit Agarwal, general manager of Amazon K-12 Education, said the new site was intended to make it easier and faster for teachers to pinpoint timely and relevant free resources for their classrooms.
“Every teacher should be able to use the platform with zero training,” Mr. Agarwal said. He added: “We are taking a big step forward to help the educator community make the digital classroom a reality.”
The site for teachers is not Amazon’s first education venture. In 2013, the company acquired TenMarks, a math instruction site. (Mr. Patterson of Owl Ventures is also a partner at Catamount Ventures, a firm that was an investor in TenMarks.)
In March, the New York City public schools, the largest school district in the country, awarded Amazon a three-year contract, worth an estimated $30 million, to provide e-books to its 1.1 million students.
In the school market, however, Amazon is competing not just with rival tech companies but also with established digital education companies and ed tech start-ups.
A number of popular platforms already offer instructional materials for teachers. Among them are tes.com, a site based in London with more than eight million users worldwide, and teacherspayteachers.com, a site based in Manhattan that more than two million teachers use regularly.
Like Amazon Inspire, these sites let teachers search for materials by subject matter, like fractions or mitosis, and by grade level. Like Amazon Inspire, tes.com lets teachers download lessons and edit them to suit their students. (Some resources on teacherspayteachers.com may also be edited.)
Mr. Agarwal said the company’s new instructional resources site would be able to differentiate itself by being more intuitive for teachers who are Amazon users and by offering compelling new features.
“With the technology, content and expertise that Amazon has, we believed we could provide value,” he said.
Amazon timed its announcement to coincide with ISTE, the annual conference of the International Society for Technology in Education, which about 16,000 teachers and school officials are attending in Denver this week. Other tech giants also unveiled new education ventures during the conference.
On Sunday, Microsoft said that it was working with ISTE to help schools introduce and integrate technology in the classroom. The project includes training programs for school administrators, online leadership courses developed with edX — a learning platform created by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — and services to support schools as they adopt digital learning approaches.
On Monday, Google said it was making Expeditions, a free virtual reality app for students that has been available on a limited basis to schools, generally available. More than one million students tried the app during its test phase, the company said.
Google also introduced two new products for schools: Quizzes, an online form that teachers can use to give tests and automatically grade multiple-choice questions, and Cast for Education, a free Chrome app intended to promote class discussion by enabling teachers and students to share what is on their screens with one another.
New teachers should have their outstanding student debt wiped out after they have been in the profession for seven years, says a report on attracting more graduates into teaching.
The introduction of a policy of “forgivable fees” could mean a teacher who started work in their early 20s could be free of university tuition fee debt by 30.
The policy is one of a number of ideas put forward in a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute thinktank to help tackle a growing shortage of teachers, which experts warn is threatening the life chances of a generation.
The report, published on Thursday, says the current system of bursaries aimed at attracting graduate talent is not sufficiently effective and calls on the next government to think again about how to make teaching a more attractive option.