If you stop by Target this week, look around for shoppers whose carts are teeming with pencils, construction paper and markers. They may be teachers putting your children's education on a credit card - to the tune of nearly $500 a year, on average.
The retailer is offering a 15 percent school supply discount for teachers through July 21. It will surely come as a relief to educators who for years have spent their own money to keep their classrooms stocked with necessities.
And that's the problem.
Target's sale is a nice idea, education advocates say. But the need for a discount also reveals the systemic problem of classrooms buoyed by the personal finances of teachers who say they are already vastly underpaid - an issue that has triggered teacher walkouts and demands for wage increases across the country.
According to federal data, nearly all public school teachers use their own money to gather school supplies, at an average cost of $479 a year, The Washington Post's Moriah Balingit reported in May. About 7 percent of educators spend more than $1,000 a year on supplies.
Target's discount is a way to "see the lack of investment and lack of priority for school kids," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
"The wave of teacher walkouts this spring made it clear that educators don't get paid appropriately for the job they do," Weingarten told The Post, adding that many teachers take second and even third jobs.
Elementary and secondary teachers are about 30 percent more likely to work at a second job, compared with workers in other professions, according to the Brookings Institution, citing Labor Department data.
Salary varies widely from state to state, with K-12 educators making an average of about $58,000 nationally, The Post reported. The average starting salary for teachers is about $30,000, according to the National Education Association, and teachers in 38 states make less on average now than they did nine years ago, Weingarten said.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has said she supports higher wages for teachers, though she has criticized walkouts and protests demanding such increases. DeVos referred to a teacher strike in West Virginia as "adult squabbles" in February.
That state ranks 48th in teacher salary among all 50 states and Washington D.C., The Post's Sarah Larimer reported.
Teacher advocates say modest salaries add pressure to the private finances of teachers before they stock their classrooms with supplies that they've paid for out of pocket.
A Target spokeswoman, Meghan Roman, said the teacher discount is "a way for Target to acknowledge teachers are going the extra mile for their students." It is the first Target promotion of its kind, Roman said. Other companies have offered similar discounts for teachers.
The Education Department did not respond to a request for comment.
A Twitter exchange between Manuel Bonilla, a high school video production teacher in Fresno, California, and other teachers revealed a mix of gratitude and frustration over the Target discount.
"I love deals!" tweeted Janell Miller, a science teacher in Sanger, California. "I also agree w/the idea that it is sad that teachers are expected to purchase supplies for their students."
Others criticized the company for profiting off the issue instead of using its corporate influence to advocate for policy reforms. A Target spokesperson said response to the promotion has been popular among teachers.
But even a discount would not help all teachers equally.
The effects of buying supplies on a modest salary are felt more sharply in areas racked by poverty. The May report prepared by the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics found that teachers spent $554 a year in schools where most children qualified for free lunch.
Schools in poor areas or with high concentrations of low-wage earners - such as Fresno, which has some of the most pronounced areas of poverty in the nation - are already underfunded, meaning teachers have to dig deeper from smaller salaries, compared with teachers at more affluent schools, said Bonilla, president of the Fresno Teachers Association.
Bonilla said teachers often pay for their own supplies as a result of inadequate funding as well a disconnect between what they say they need and what is provided at the local, state and federal level.
"Instead of finding a solution and accountability, there is hesitancy to say 'We trust teachers,' " he told The Post.
Teachers qualify for a $250 tax credit when they buy their own supplies, but that doesn't go nearly far enough, Weingarten and Bonilla said.
The House and Senate disagreed between doubling the credit or eliminating it altogether in last year's tax bill, but the final proposal left the amount flat and unchanged since it was introduced in 2002, The Post reported.
Teachers since then have made an increasingly difficult choice: buy fewer materials or spend more out of pocket to get the same supplies. For instance, staying in budget and spending precisely $250 on supplies in 2002 would mean no out-of-pocket costs with the credit.
Because of inflation, decreased buying power would mean spending $100 out of pocket for a similar amount of goods, according to federal inflation data.
Some educators have gone to extreme lengths to fund their classrooms.
Teresa Danks, a teacher in Tulsa, resorted to panhandling to help raise money for her classroom. She said she spends $2,000 a year on supplies.
"All this stuff, it costs money. I want the proper tools to do my job well. I wouldn't ask somebody to build my house with a spoon," she told The Post last July.
This article was written by Alex Horton, a reporter for The Washington Post.