Brenda Falk, a Spanish teacher at College Gardens Elementary in Rockville, Md., was supposed to get a 5 percent raise next year. But she's voting to give it up.
"Each and every day when I see those 675 little kids, I make a difference to one or two of them. And I'm still going to make a difference next year no matter what my pay is," Falk said. "Am I going to cut back? Yes… because that's the smart thing to do. But am I going to be able to survive? Yes."
Falk's decision, along with 22,000 fellow educators in Montgomery County, to give up the pay raise, is expected to save $89 million next year and avoid crowding classrooms in a district ranked among the nation's best.
"We're adults. We should be working together in a transparent clear fashion with a common objective: helping every child get to the highest level we can possibly get them at,"said Jerry Weast, Montgomery County Public Schools superintendent.
The teacher's union made the sacrifice in these tight economic times to minimize the economy's impact on the students' education and save jobs.
"Teachers for the most part are not happy about this, but they're realistic and look at the newspapers," said Doug Prouty, vice president of the Montgomery County Education Association. "They see what's going on in terms of the economy and the country and they realize this is an unfortunate step, but it's a step that we have to take."
California Teacher Gets Creative
The budget is so tight in the suburbs of San Diego that at Rancho Bernardo High School calculus teacher Tom Farber didn't have enough paper to give practice tests. Then a bus advertisement sparked an idea.
"I said, you know, in the face of tough times, maybe I could do something similar in my classroom and advertise on my test," Farber said.
The bottom of each of Farber's calculus quizzes features an inspirational message paid for by parents or local businesses. He's not happy about taking such desperate measures, but the average public school teacher already spends around $430 of their own money on supplies, according to the National Education Association.
What To Do When Budgets Fall Short
For New York's Nancy Shapiro, it's closer to $600 out of pocket to bring materials into her classroom. Though that's a hefty percentage of her salary, Shapiro says that she does it for the kids.
"I think having a fish tank in the class is a beautiful thing. That came out of my pocket. That's $150," she said.
Shapiro relies heavily on DonorsChoose.org, a Web site inspired by teacher's lounge gripe sessions. The nonprofit organization helps public school teachers find funding for classroom projects that are out of their limited budgets.
Since the recession hit, more than 10,000 teachers have posted requests for pencils, books, chairs, even hand sanitizer. For a few dollars, donors get pictures of their gift in action with thank you notes from the kids.
"One sixth grader wrote, 'Dear Donor, no one has ever given me a book before. So if you ever get in trouble, here's my address. Call me up. I want to return this favor,'" said Charles Best, founder of DonorsChoose.org.
Even in the best of times, nobody goes into public education for the money. But more than ever, the fate of America's kids will depend on the generosity of strangers and the creativity of teachers.