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Bill Thompson: Redirect education funds to Teacher’s Choice

To show that he respects teachers’ hard work, Bill Thompson wants to give each of them $200 a year to use on classroom supplies.

The mayoral candidate and former comptroller made the request during a conference call this morning that his campaign said would focus on “how to cut waste and abuse at the Department of Education.” The department has spent millions of taxpayer dollars on outside consultants and pricey contracts but, when it comes to teachers, has been “nickel and diming them for out-of-pocket expenditures,” he said.

Restoring Teacher’s Choice, a City Council program that gives teachers a small stipend for discretionary purchases, to its pre-recession levels would cost about $15 million a year, Thompson said. He added, “I’m sure we can find those dollars in the excess waste at the Department of Education.”

Thompson’s request comes just a week before the United Federation of Teachers is scheduled to endorse a candidate in the Democratic primary. The union helped launch Teacher’s Choice in the 1980s and has advocated annually for its continuation. The union expressed disappointment when the City Council sacrificed the program to avert teacher layoffs in 2011 and last year, when teachers received only about $40 each through the program.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew quickly applauded the request. “Bill Thompson’s solution makes a lot of sense and would solve what has been a longstanding problem for teachers — spending hundreds of dollars of their own money every year for basic supplies for their kids,” he said.

Thompson said the timing of his announcement was not related to the union’s endorsement. Instead, he said, he was speaking out now because city officials and the City Council are locked in annual negotiations about next year’s budget, which must be settled by the end of this month.

Teacher’s Choice allocations are usually settled at the very end of budget talks, after the City Council determines how much funding it has to allocate to pet projects. In 2007, before the city’s budget picture worsened, each teacher got about $220, and even as late as 2010, teachers took home about $110. In 2011, the program was eliminated completely, and for this school year, the council managed to allocate only about $40 to each teacher.

That’s only 10 percent of what teachers spend, on average, to equip their classrooms with the supplies they need each year, according to the results of a 2004 City Council survey that Thompson cited today.

“Our teachers give a lot,” Thompson said. “We need a mayor who understands that commitment and works in kind to give them the little extra support they need.”

Thompson said there would be other benefits — for the city, and for the UFT — of reining in Department of Education spending on consultants and outside contracts. Doing so would “free up resources that will allow us to compensate teachers to the tune they deserve and free up flexibility for the next round of negotiations,” he said.