These Aren’t Your Mama’s School Supply Lists…

Remember shopping for school supplies as a kid? Sure, schools published school supply lists every year for each grade, but really, it was all about that brand new box of Crayola crayons, pens with purple ink, folders plastered with pictures of the latest teen heartthrob, and the ever-important statement piece – the Trapper Keeper.

These days, though, parents are finding that those school supply lists are expanding, and growing more expensive each year.

Part of this has to do with technological advances that teachers are expected to introduce in the classroom. Suddenly, instead of a new composition notebook, many students are required to have USB flash drives, graphing calculators, and headphones. These items can quickly add up… yet teachers need to teach to today’s world, and these items are needed to do just that.

Another problem driving up the costs of school supply lists is the fact that schools have faced tremendous budget cuts, forcing teachers to rely on help from parents as well. School supply lists now often list such items as rolls of paper towels, disinfectant, and, in some cases, copy paper, jump ropes, and helmets for gym class, forks, Ziploc bags, books, and soap.

Teachers themselves spend plenty of their own money on items to make their classrooms enjoyable and pleasant, and to provide standard school supplies such as binders for students who cannot afford their own. In fact, during the 2012 – 2013 school year, public school teachers spent an estimated $1.6 billion of their own money on classroom supplies and gear, according to a study by the the National School Supply and Equipment Association (NSSEA), which actually represents retailers that supply learning aids rather than educators. In fact, a total 99.5 percent of all public school teachers spent their own money to supply their classrooms and their students, with the national average total being spent per teacher coming to around $485.

Many parents understand why the school supply lists are growing, and those who can afford to do so don’t mind buying an extra roll of paper towels or another package of dry erase markers. Furthermore, most teachers will be quick to explain that those items are suggested, and that no student would ever be penalized for not bringing in a bottle of hand sanitizer.

But many low-income families struggle to buy the more expensive electronic items, or even a decent binder. Huntington Bank’s annual survey of school supply costs found that supplies for a middle-school student will cost around $312 this year, which is an increase of more than $100. The reason for the large increase is attributed to a pricier calculator. A high school student will need around $350 worth of school supplies.

It leaves many financially-strapped parents facing definite hardships – some parents choosing between paying an electric bill or outfitting their child or children for school. Even with charitable organizations and teachers themselves trying to fill in the gap for students, not having the school supplies needed is detrimental. As one teacher said: “It can hurt them socially because they don’t have what the other kids have and they know it … and it hurts them in the classroom.”

The bigger picture, experts agree, is troubling. As Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of education and history at New York University said:

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“The quality of your education shouldn’t vary with your ability to pay. This is a shared responsibility, regardless of the choices that individual parents and families make about their education …. We’re losing the public in public education.”

The days of a new box of Crayolas and a brightly colored Trapper Keeper being enough are obviously gone, yet these new school supply lists may make obtaining a public education even harder for kids living in poverty.

So what do you think? Are ballooning school supply lists a hardship for you and your family? What should be done about it?

(And for ideas on how to save some money on school supplies, click here.)

[Image via Merrill Middle School]