Some teachers complain about Kemp’s classroom supply subsidy

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Issues with online portal range from prices to frustration using it

It was meant as a gesture of goodwill, but Gov. Brian Kemp’s gift to teachers to offset the cost of their classroom supplies this fall has generated ill will among some.

The $125 grant, which Kemp announced at a Henry County high school in July, is being channeled through an online portal with a handful of boutique retailers that charge more than larger retailers and have a limited selection. Some also say it’s difficult to use.

A metro Atlanta middle school teacher who was tired of sitting in a student-sized plastic chair said he hoped to buy an office chair with his portion, but discovered it would be cheaper to buy it with his own money at Target than to pay the difference out of pocket on the much higher price on the state’s platform. And a high school teacher in Gwinnett wanted to buy a laminator so her special education students would have a tougher time tearing up the papers she hands out. But she discovered it cost $105 through the portal when Staples, which wasn’t an option, was charging $66 for the same item.

Like the other teacher, she didn’t want to be identified, fearing for her job, but said it was OK to use her first name, Katy. She said the site kept logging her out without saving her spot, wasting her time. “It’s just been incredibly frustrating, and then when you know that everything is double what it should cost, it’s like what’s the point,” she said.

Sonya Allicock, who teaches middle school in DeKalb County, recalled that well-known retailers were an option last spring, when Kemp issued $15 million in similar classroom supply grants.

“A lot of money might be going back because there’s really nothing worth purchasing in there,” Allicock said, noting that the stores seemed aimed at elementary school teachers rather than teachers of teenagers like her. “I don’t want to just buy something just to be buying something, and that seems like, you know, what’s going to end up happening.”

The state hasn’t said how much of the money teachers and support staff have spent so far.

The platform, ClassWallet, is a middleman between shoppers and retailers, offering governments a secure and trackable way to distribute resources, both at online vendors and in physical stores. Its partners include big-box retailers such as Office Depot and Staples, as well as niche shops such as Becker’s School Supplies and McGregor’s Teacher Supplies.

The last two were among those offered to Georgia’s teachers this time, but not the first two.

A ClassWallet spokesman said by email that not everyone adapts well to new technology, so it would be “highly unusual” to expect “universal comfort” from all of the more than 100,000 Georgia teachers using the platform. He also said teachers might find “price competitive” products elsewhere, “but our clients need to balance that dynamic against potential risk of misuse that is inherent in allowing users to shop wherever they wish.”

The spokesman, Henry Feintuch, said clients — in this case, Georgia — “curate” the vendor list when they use the platform.

“While we can’t speak on behalf of our client, it’s not hard to understand why merchants which sell many things other than educational material, may not be available given the inherent risk of purchases being made outside the intent of the funding source,” he wrote.

A spokesman for the governor said by email that Kemp’s hands were tied by federal regulations. The grants are coming from COVID-19 relief funds.

The federal money comes with “a myriad of restrictions and stipulations,” wrote Kemp’s spokesman, Andrew Isenhour. And “to remain compliant with those strict requirements, the vendors on the platform are limited to those who only sell school supplies and materials, which unfortunately eliminates some of the big-box retailers that offer additional products.”

He said vendor options were changed after the spring round of these grants due to conversations with federal regulators about how the money could be spent: “We empathize with the educators and would prefer the federal stipulations gave both the state and the teachers themselves greater latitude here.”

The U.S. Department of Education said Georgia didn’t have to use the platform it chose or restrict its vendors to those selling only school supplies and materials.

“There are no federal requirements for states to use ClassWallet or any specific vendor and any claims to the contrary are false,” a department spokesperson said by email.

That prompted this response from Kemp’s office: “There very much are restrictions when it comes to how the money can be used, even if they don’t dictate what platforms or vendors can be used.”

Allicock finally found something that seemed reasonably priced — a couple of printer cartridges for $110. She questioned why the state is so concerned about fraud, given that she had to have the products mailed to her school.

“I just got ink because there was nothing else I could get,” she said.