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Who Should Pay for School Supplies?

At this time of year, most parents are rushing around in a frantic panic searching for each and every item on their child's school supply list. If your lists are anything like mine, they include a combination of the usual (24 pencils, sharpened), the overly specific (1" white binder with pockets), and the unusual (travel chess game). If your shopping experience is anything like mine, it includes hitting the big stores to cross most items off the list while swearing about a lack of labeling of toxic ingredients (or absence thereof), and then spending way too long looking for the final elusive items (dollar stores do not carry bingo chips anymore, they only have dabbers).

Then there is the expense.  It is an expense that we are, fortunately, able to manage even if it is not always easy and does end up blowing our monthly budget. However, it is an expense, not to mention waste of time, that I resent. I think that it would be much more cost and time effective if the materials were bought in bulk, instead of having each family pay retail prices and go through the long frustrating search for those hard to find items. There are some services, like Best Tools for Schools, that allow parents to take advantage of such bulk buying, but they are not available everywhere yet. Plus there is, of course, the fact that not all parents are able to afford the long list of school supplies that are requested by the schools.

The Ottawa Citizen had an interesting article today on that topic called The dilemma of paying for school essentials. The article focused on an Ontario Ministry of Education guideline that was released in March. The guideline indicated that all fees for items that are essential for a child to succeed in school are voluntary this year. That means that parents do not have to pay for things like pencils, paper, textbooks, mandatory guest speakers, and other items that are required. This is part of a move towards ensuring that public schools are completely public institutions.

The change in policy could be helpful to families that are struggling financially. However, there is concern that even middle to upper class families will opt not to buy school supplies because it is voluntary. Ultimately, this could put a lot of pressure on school boards that are already strapped for cash. There are concerns that a lot of teachers will end up paying for even more supplies out of pocket than they already do.

The Ottawa Citizen quoted Annie Kidder, the executive director of People for Education, who noted that "The problem is really the basic question - shouldn't our taxes be paying for all of the things we do in the schools?"  That is a good question and I think she is right on track. In a public school system, I don't think parents should be required to pay any fees or purchase any supplies for their child's basic education. I also think that a lot of time and money could be saved if the required school supplies were purchased in bulk by the school board (or a contractor on their behalf), rather than by each individual family.

What is your school supply list like this year?  Do you wish the school was taking care of it for you?

Image credit: Merelymel13 on flickr
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Reader Comments (61)

In the least, the schools could buy it in bulk and then just bill the parents their amount as a fee. That would save time (a valuable yet under-appreciated commodity) and some money. I agree though...it would be nice to see all of that picked up by the schools. I just don't see that happening here though. :-/

August 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarfMom

I do think the basics should be covered by our taxes. I don't have a long list of school supplies yet, my son is going into grade 1 and we pay a school fee of $40/child to cover supplies. I'm ok with paying that fee, only because I know teachers spend a fortune out of their own pockets.

I do buy him the cool gear to go back to school with though, new clothes, shoes, backpack and lunch box. And I don't mind, I actually LOVE back to school shopping.

And, when I see a great sale (like Crayola Crayons for 25cents a box) I buy a bunch and drop them off in the class room for the teacher. I do this with paper, pencils and other things too.

I'm not upper class, we're in the lower/middle income bracket and money is tight for us. I budget for school expenses as I would anything else...and I wont have my son miss out because 'we can't afford' something... I'd give up something else first.

August 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJen

I'm curious to read the comments on this one. As an American living in a state which is currently vying for the 49th in school funding (K-college), where our districts have lost about 1/3 of their funding in the last several years, and our higher education looking worse (the uni I teach at lost 48% of its state funding in the last two years), I'm beginning to feel that "public" isn't as public as it once was. I paid about $50 for my kindergartner this year, and it included things like copy paper. My partner was incensed at what we had to buy, but frankly, I'm kind of hoping it is a wake-up call to the idiots in my area who wish to get rid of all taxes. While shopping, I heard a mother complaining that we shouldn't have to pay for these things at all, that it was the school's job to come up with the money and the supplies. I turned to agree with her, only to find her wearing a Tea Party shirt. I just shook my head and kept on truckin'. If we don't want to pay the taxes, then we'll be buying school supplies. Sorry, rant over.

I do like the idea of just paying a fee and having the school buy in bulk. Seems much more cost effective. As a middle-class mama in a decidedly lower-class school, I buy in bulk and donate the remainders to the school. I make sure to bring two complete sets in, and larger bulk items of things like the copy paper and cleaning supplies.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKim

I think it's incredibly frustrating that teacher salaries are low, school lunches poor quality, and parents still have to go buy basic school supplies. What are schools spending tax money on?!? I think there's a lot of waste in the school system and it ends up hurting low income families the most. We're opting for private school because we want the daily religious education and stronger sense of community with families from our church, but we still have to pay taxes that will get wasted by the public school system.

But basically I think government is generally not good at spending money effectively and it would be better to lower taxes and let parents buy supplies with the money they save on their tax bills. And get back to basics-travel chess sounds fun, but seems cruel to ask of families for whom back

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCrunchy Con Mommy

Oops not sure how I hit send already on that one. Anyway sentence should end with "families for whom backpacks and shoes are already burdens".

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCrunchy Con Mommy

I see my facebook friends talking about shopping from the school supply list in their various cities, but my school/district doesn't ask us to buy anything at all. I assume is because of sensitivity to those who cannot afford to shop. I agree with you entirely and will proceed with being a little more grateful than I was before.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRookieMom Whitney

Our kids are at a secular private school. I don't think that the public schools have travel chess on their lists, but I'm not sure.

We are happy to pay school taxes and I would happily pay more school taxes if they were able to offer the type of education that I want for my children.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I just packed my boys' backpacks (three of them this year!) to get ready for school on Wednesday. It IS a big expense and hassle- this year I just bought it all online (even the boxes of tissues required to send in!) I am in the U.S. but know that several supplies they bring in are so that the teacher doesn't have to pay for them out of their own pocket and I definitely would rather provide those things than have them struggle to keep their class supply stocked. I think also they ask for extra, knowing that some kids won't bring what's on the list, and I'm okay with that since we are able to provide those things for now.


August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAdventures In Babywearing

I've been reading your blog on a reader so I haven't been commenting but I couldn't resist this post! What I can't believe is how much money TEACHERS spend on buying basic supplies for their classrooms, out of their own budgets. Some of the supplies such as books or curriculum tools they can keep and take to their next job. But many, many supplies are consumable by the students. I don't know why there is not enough money for the teachers to obtain supplies.... let alone free personal supplies for the kids (I know that is what your post was focused on, Annie!)

My kids are still too young for school so we do not have our shopping list yet. But I know that if I have money to spare I will try to give it to my child's teacher to help offset his or her own out-of-pocket costs to educate my child.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlina

Hey Annie - this is a great post. Many parents don't realize that the option exists to pressure school districts in Canada to pay for school supplies. Just before my oldest daughter went into Kindergarden in 2009 the school district in the area I was in at the time passed a motion that schools would pay for school supplies. I didn't pay one cent for her supplies. Yet, moving a town away a year later, to a different school district, everyone pays here. Luckily I still haven't paid for anything because we are home schooling for the second year in a row and my kids still have hoards of crayons in all their broken glory that are perfectly adequate for their needs. On a different note I think it is ridiculous that parents are pressured to buy NEW supplies every year. I figured this out even at a young age that my mom was buying me a plastic bag with 8 pencils in it every year and I only ever really used up about three and there were some scattered all around the house that I could use the following year, but no, she bought me new each time. When I was in university my pens were the ones you end up bringing home from the bank and car insurance places by mistake! lol! I bought my loose leaf and binders at thrift stores and my erasers and pencils were from years before that I found in drawers around my parent's house. When my daughter does eventually attend public school again I think it sucks that in order to help her fit in she'll need all the latest cool supplies. Boo!

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMelodie

I love the idea of bulk purchasing! My son is 3 so I am going to start looking into this now. I would totally volunteer to do the coordination of this for my sons school! I have many teacher friends and my mom was a teacher, they make great salaries but no one should have to purchase the basic things needed to get their job done well.

It would also be great to offer parents the chance to donate the difference of savings with bulk supplies to prepare subsidized kits for families that can't afford as much.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie

Our school does bulk purchasing and then we pay for the supplies with our fees/tuition. That said, some parents have been complaining ("I just bought a library bag and art smock last year, so why do I have to spend money on a new one again?") and they just sent a letter around asking us for our opinion if we'd rather buy the items on our own and then we lose the discount. I voted to keep the bulk buying, but who knows how it will turn out. It'll probably all even out anyway. The folks who wanted to save money by not buying repeat items will pay more for supplies that are not being discounted by bulk purchasing by the school.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJ.

What kind of upper middle class assholes would opt not to pay? We didn't have a ton of money growing up but I know that my parents would have gone ahead and paid for the supplies because they could afford it, and understood how the system works. We have less money now and would probably be on the fence, but I assume even we would pay something. I think this is a great system and it could work if items are purchased in bulk so long as some families do pay or donate.

I'm a public school teacher, and I completely agree that basic supplies should be free for students' families. Every year I try to put fewer and fewer things on the supply list because I know what a hassle it is, even though my two aren't school-aged yet. Buying in bulk is exactly how it should work. A few years ago, my teammates and I came up with an idea to do supply-sharing within our own classrooms. We had a quarter of the students bring markers, another quarter bring crayons, etc. Then we put bins on top of each table (of 4 or 5 kids) and they all shared supplies. We went through a quarter of the materials and the families had to buy only a fourth of the usual list! Some parents and kids complained that they couldn't have their own stuff, but we told them they were welcome to still buy it all and use it at home on their homework. For everyone else, it just made sense. From an environmental standpoint it made sense, too: there is no need to throw out those crayons and buy new ones every year just because you can afford it! This also allowed us to ask for unusual things (like travel chess, though I've not asked for that yet) as donations and know that some families were able to do it because the list had been shorter at the start.

It's hard for teachers to buy so much out of their own pockets, which we do all do, truly. But for basics? Shouldn't have to do it, and neither should the parents.

Ok, that was a long response just to agree with you. But to me, this is exactly what I want my taxes to go toward: not making kids feel bad for not having the coolest markers or having to go to the local food bank to fill their backpacks. It makes my heart hurt to think of it. And now I'm off to make a note to call our food bank tomorrow to ask what they still need to fill requests for next week's first day of school.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJessica@Team Rasler

I was thrilled when the school asked us to contribute instead of sending a list of supplies. it also helps with the fighting over the "better" erasers. It's gone up every year, but we are at a low income school and if you can't afford it you don't pay. I am fortunate to have the luxery of paying. We also get backpacks donated to every kids, with a few supplies in them which is fun for the kids. They save extras for mid-year "prizes", often going to families who might not have a lot of xmas gifts. I agree we seem to pay a lot for our "public" schools these days, so I really try to figure out where my $ is going, and if it eases the burden on the teachers and helps the kids I'll give.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNicole Pelton

The "coolness" factor is why a lot school lists require specific brands and items counts, so each kid has exactly the same thing.

I like your idea of bulk buying and sharing the supplies. You're right, each kid doesn't need a marker set, a crayon set, etc.

I know there is already a lot of controversy at schools with advertising, but would it possible to get businesses to donate things like pencils or pens? They usually hand them out by the handful anyway.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMeghan

As a high school teacher in aforementioned state (gosh, I don't even want to mention the initials 'cause I'm so saddened by this) where the state congresspeople have informed us that we should "do more with less", I too was curious to read the comments on this one. Granted, I'm fortunate enough to work in a school that provides laptops for all of its students. Because of a technology grant, not because of public taxpayer support for education, we might not be able to provide enough pencils and paper to cover all the kids, but they do have the technology to type everything they'll need.

And I think I just might have screamed at the chick in the Tea Party shirt.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLici Whit

I was homeschooled through third grade, and when I started public school as a fourth-grader, I remember my mom being shocked by some of the items on my supply list. In addition to all of the usual things like pencils and crayons and notebooks (though many of those were alarmingly specific), my list contained items like multiple bottles of SoftSoap, boxes of Kleenex, copy paper, etc.

In middle and high school, most of my teachers refused to lend out pens or pencils unless you gave them something for collateral to ensure they got their materials back. They were spending a fortune out of their own pockets buying writing utensils for kids who borrowed them one day, took them out of the room, lost or forgot them, and then requested another the very next day. I'm now married to a high school teacher, and while we try not to pay for many school supplies out of our own pockets, we still wind up buying things like boxes of Kleenex, pencils, and loose leaf on a fairly regular basis (and that's in addition to the materials he uses to actually teach!) If he taught elementary school, I think it would be much, much worse.

My daughter's only 2, and we plan to homeschool, but even so, I actually wouldn't mind purchasing a few school supplies. It's just when the lists grow really out of control that it bothers me, even though I know that's not the fault of teachers or even in many cases the individual schools. A bulk purchasing plan sounds ideal, as does sharing classroom supplies (for elementary-age students). And honestly, as a kid I remember a lot of things being on our supply lists which were never, ever used. ><

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCate

Ouch. I don't understand people who can't grasp basic cause-and-effect (such as: "If you cut all funding to schools, they won't have any money, and cannot conjure funds for supplies out of thin air.")

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCate

I think families around here (northern Virginia) do have to pony up for a lot of the school supplies, at least judging by the enormous displays in the big box stores. The two counties neighboring us, Fairfax and Loudoun, are two of the wealthiest counties in the the nation, and it seems like it shouldn't be a huge deal for them to absorb school supply costs via bulk purchasing. I'm more conflicted about our own county, Prince William, which was hit particularly hard by the real estate crash (school funding is tied to property taxes here) and is home to a greater proportion of low income families. The families don't have a lot, but neither does the school board.

Does it matter how it comes out of our pockets? Taxes or just going to Target with a supply list, it's still ultimately we who supply the funds.

We live in a lower income neighborhood, and there is at least one local church that passes out bags of school supplies to the kids in the neighborhood near the end of summer, which I think is lovely of them. (They gave our kids some, which I felt slightly guilty about-- we home school-- until I reminded myself that we are short of money, too, and also need school supplies even if we use them here.)

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSherri Edman

Last year I was in favour of bulk purchasing, we had a big list. This year we have a small list and only need a few things. Pencils and crayons are leftover from next year.
Our local public schools work very hard to not burden parents with extra costs. We pay for supplies and 1 field trip per year. All other incidentals are absorbed by the parent council. This has pros/cons schools in active and supportive communities have big budgets and are able to have more activities, schools in less supported areas get less extras or do without.
All parent councils maintain an "angel" fund to provide supplies and field trip costs for families that are not able to afford them.
Standard across the our school board is for families to provide a box of kleenex per term. This year a box of band aids has been added. I am happy to supply those.

I know some upper-middle class parents who are not sending supplies this year because they believe in the idea that supplies should be included, and haven't thought it out farther than that.

Although it's a financial burden for us, I am sending my three kids with everything on the lists -- and we still have to pay school fees on top of that -- because I fear teachers will end up paying out of pocket for supplies and that doesn't sit well with me. However it's a relief this year that lists include pretty much just pen-and-paper type supplies, and not office supplies, paper towels and weird things we have been required to send in the past (artist canvas, tennis balls, film canisters, scrapbooks, etc). The lists were completely out of hand in previous years.

[my kids go to public school in Ontario]

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMaranda

Having the basics paid for by school funding would be wonderful, but that is a total pipe dream in the U.S. So many people and politicians in our country simply don't care about funding public education. As some have noted above, school supply lists have gone way beyond pencils and paper. Some schools are now asking for facial tissues, toilet paper and cleaning supplies.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

I can only speak from experience at my daughter's school here in Colorado (and as a former teacher). My daughter is in 3rd grade, has a very manageable list that is fine tuned, it cost us $25. My second is entering Public School preschool at the same school and they don't have a supply list. They simply post on the door when a need arises.

I agree, having a system which allows parents to purchase supplies from the school in a bundle is the way to go. That system existed at our former school, but unlike you many parents like shopping for school supplies and didn't opt into the bundled system. Maybe 5 families out of 30 would buy the bundle.

Lastly, it's the climate of education today and funding cuts. If a teacher is lucky s/he has a classroom budget of $100 to spend on supplies, many times they will be specific to the subject area like science or math manipulatives. Unfortunately, with out the support from families it would be teachers paying out of their pockets. I would say on average a teacher spends $500 throughout the school year on materials to support the classroom (out of pocket).

Wondering if you could name another profession that does that? Doctors buying bandaids for the hospital? Yes, not likely.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDenise-EPL

I need to look into this more, because I've heard from various sources that here in Ontario, this is not a new thing, but it is actually a law that schools must provide anything a child needs to complete the curriculum. And yet, it varies from school to school in our board, and in other nearby boards. So, who is doing this the right way? I want to know. Ex. My older son attended a new school for JK/SK, and we were given a long list of things like pencils, kleenex, glue sticks. It was pooled for the "cool" factor (all kids had access to the same supplies). His teacher told me that while it would seem a new school would have everything shiny and new, this was not the case, that older schools had grandfathered budgets (not to mention large collections of books!) A friend of mine in the same neighbourhood had the same experience -- yet, she was confused because as a teacher in a different board, she was given budget every year to buy these things and said her students' parents would have been shocked if they were asked to buy basic supplies. Yet my friend didn't want to rock the boat or single her daughter out as the kid whose parents wouldn't or couldn't pay, so she just did as she was asked. Back to us: in grade one, my son transferred to another, older school for French Immersion. We are not asked to buy a thing. Not stuff that is pooled, not stuff he takes back and forth in a pencil case for himself. This is the same school board as his K school. So, what gives? It don't want teachers to have to pay out of pocket by any means (esp. since I just got my BEd and am currently trying to get a teaching job LOL I know I'll buy a ton of stuff that I'll keep and use year after year, but as someone pointed out to me, buying pencils for the class is sort of like being asked at my old office job to buy paper to get my work done!) But it does seem like something fishy is going on if some schools ask parents to buy the basics and others don't. It's not so much that I mind buying my child things for school, it's that I mind that I might possibly already be paying for that stuff. So where is that money going?

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

Oh, and to add, aside from convenience factor, I have also heard from other parents that when they are asked to pay a fee to the school for the supplies, the costs are actually higher for the things parents could get in stores themselves. Not sure if this is true (certainly shouldn't be).

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

I'm a Canadian who's lived in the US for 14 years now. In Indiana, the state were I now live, parents not only have to pay for school supplies (which includes office supplies for the school, like copier paper), but also have to pay textbook rental fees which average around $200 per child per year. Indiana is one of two US states that does this ("free" public education under the Indiana constitution only covers the cost of the teachers and the school building, not the cost of the textbooks).
I have a masters degree in statistics, and this issue of textbook fees very recently piqued my interest because they seemed awfully high for books that get used year after year. It turns out my instincts were right; I did a comparative study and found that Indiana pays almost twice the national average for textbooks. The reason is that the textbook rental fee is not just the cost of the textbook, but at least 50% more, and this is written into Indiana law. Indiana is using the textbook rental fee to not only pay for textbooks, but as an extra tax to fund the schools as well, and the parents have to pony up that tax in cash at the beginning of the school year, instead of the tax being equally borne by all homeowners and businesses in the community.
Is this fair? In this Republican-led state, the majority of people think so, or at least there is a strong vocal base in the state that would call itself the majority that says this is fair. The newspaper editorial I wrote about the issue garnered extremely negative comments, and I got called some nasty names.
I don't want to offend any Americans who may be reading this article, because I am an immigrant to your country, and grateful for the career opportunities in science in engineering available here, but the fact of the matter is that I have three graduate degrees in the sciences, but I would not have even graduated from high school if I had grown up in Indiana instead of Canada; I was the first person in a very large family to even consider going to university, and I did so against the wishes of my father, who was himself a high school dropout... paying $250 a year for textbooks in high school would have failed his cost-benefit analysis for household finances, especially considering I was female, not male, and if we lived in Indiana I would have been forced by him to drop out when I was 16 and get a job. I am not so naive to think that my somewhat dysfunctional family situation is so unique that there are not children currently in Indiana who are not meeting their full life potential because of the outrageously high Indiana textbook fees. This depresses me.
I leaned strongly towards Social Democracy before this issue came up, now I am vehemently Socially Democratic. I simply would not have reached the fullest potential of what I have become in life if I had not grown up in a social democratic society.
Getting back to school fees (rather than textbook fees): the question to be asked is whether or not a child will not meet his or her fullest academic potential and/or go hungry if school supplies are not supplied by the state. I think, for basic school supplies this is not the case. In Canada, where I grew up, we pretty much had our new pens, pencils, erasers and paper every year and I don't think any parent was unduly burdened by that (especially since there was the child allowance from the government). However, I agree with some of the other commentors here that the school supply lists have gotten out of hand in recent years. There was stuff on my kids' supply list that was obviously office supplies for the school. But then again, that might be because we are in Indiana, and they have virtually no federal tax money coming in to help the school.
Anyway, that's my two cents worth.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSherry Jones

This year, both of my school aged children are being asked to bring earphones in a baggie with their name on it, for hygienic reasons. I can see the sense in that, but I am dead sure that we aren't going to go the whole year without having to replace them once or twice. I'm also concerned that the teacher won't have good control over volume levels and children could damage their hearing.

My oldest, who will be in grade 4, is asked to bring a memory stick. Again seems reasonable. Although, it is a bit presumptuous that all households have a computer and will have compatible software. I'm also assuming that we'll have to replace it.

My last point is that the 'list' used to be called a 'supply list', implying that everything was mandatory and essential. It is now called a 'wish list' in our school. Having been the family that not so long ago couldn't afford ANYTHING after paying for consignment store clothing and shoes, I appreciate that. I have in the past sent letters stating quite plainly that I can not afford fee X, and I expect that my daughter will be provided with the supply or included in the outing. One year, we were told we had to pay for the math work book because the teacher was using the workbook instead of text book and problems on the black board. Excuse me? $25 so that my grade 1er can learn MATH! No way! And that is in addition to the $25 for the agenda, and the supplies. I think that the fit I threw in the office was the reason for the change to a 'wish list'.

As you can see I still get worked up about it. I think that the real tragedy is that this kind of system, where parents buy things etc really benefits the schools in wealthy neighbourhoods and further disadvantages schools in poorer neighbourhoods. Even if the parents aren't buying anything out of pocket, schools in wealthier neighbourhoods can fund-raise more money and the teachers can then buy the extras that way.

In Ontario, we are all following the same curriculum. The access to extras should be the same throughout the province. The tax funding should cover everything that is necessary to accomplish the curriculum goals and any fundraising that is done should have guidelines on how that money can be spent. What I would really like to see is this: If $100 is raised it stays in the school to provide this like clothing and breakfast or lunch for those who need it. If $1000 is raised $100 of that stays in the school as above, $100 goes to another school who raised less money, $400 goes to a school activity or outing, and the last $400 goes to a local or international charity of the schools choosing.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterfofo

Our school does take care of it for us--public school in Pittsburgh, PA. This is my son's second year, and I'm still in awe of http://articles.earthlingshandbook.org/2011/06/15/our-neighborhood-public-school/" rel="nofollow">what a great school my tax dollars are supporting! The pencils, crayons, scissors, etc. are in a bin in the center of the table for 4-6 children to share, and that seems to work just fine. In fact, last year my son told me of a problem with too many red-likers at his table which the kids resolved by trading one of their blue crayons for a red from the table at which they overheard an excess of blue-likers. :-)

I suppose the cost of school supplies is one reason property taxes are higher in Pittsburgh than in the suburbs, but I think it's just one of many ways we get what we pay for! I also donate to the school regularly, both supplies and cash, since I can afford to do so.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter'Becca

I read this with interest. In Australia, where I grew up, schools books and supplies are purchased through a number of large suppliers who work with schools to produce lists that are given to parents at the end of the school year. You could try to source the items yourself, but it's much easier and cheaper to go the store that produced the list (or one of its competitors, if you prefer). I used to work in one of these stores as a university student. The huge warehouse was behind us and in it were other students filling orders as they came through the door. The lines were long close to the beginning of the school year, but if you came through the earlier parts of summer the whole process could be done in less than an hour. I think prices were pretty good, considering that there were several competitors in each city. Orders could also be placed through the school, on the phone or online. If you placed the order with the school, you picked up your order in the week before school goes back.

When I look at the system in Canada, where I live now, I find it kind of ridiculous. Why haven't these types of stores emerged here? I can't imagine how laborious it is to search out these items and then not pay bulk prices for them. Crazy!

As for WHO should pay...I agree, these supplies are part of "school". A certain portion, or all if your child attends a public school, should be covered by the government.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFiona

Last year, I had a teacher recommend that I provide my fifth-grader with a laptop to keep at school, as she didn't have time to accommodate his documented need for oral responses and/or wasn't willing ("not enough time") to advocate for his receiving any adaptive tech from within the system.

This was at a public school, and while at the time she recommended this, my income was at its highest, it's still an unacceptable (and completely unsupportable) thing to have expected from our family.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlivingmysocialwork

I went to public school in Mississauga back in the days when there was no list - the school provided pencils, pens, notebooks etc. That said....most kids brought supplies and there was a lot of jealousy (from me!) for those coveted fancy binders, markers etc. I like the idea of a very specific list where everyone has the same stuff. But, oh darn, the Canadian in me just abhors the thought that our tax dollars can't cover the cost of required supplies. My sister went to a secular private school and school fees covered everything - parents just had to buy uniforms, otherwise all supplies and field trips were included in the fees. Simple. That's how public school should work too IMHO, but with taxes not fees.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commentereva

I have to go through last year's supplies and see what is still usable. Then I have to hit the stores to get the rest of the stuff.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I love the idea of schools buying in bulk. It would save everyone. In our case my children go to a very small rural school. The entire district pk4-12 has about 600 students. We have private schools that size around here. Our tax base is non exisitent. There are very few businesses, and only 2 retail stores in our entire district. The superintendent is very careful with the money, always looking for ways to earn more too. But in my opinion, we as parents could pay fees like Eva above suggested and the school can pool everyone's money for bulk purchasing. This would save us all money, as the school could order the supplies when they order all the basic office supplies. Supplies would be ready for the kids in the classroom when they get there the first day. In a side note, several years ago I took my children to stay with parents while I tended to their illnesses and businesses. My children attended my old elementary as we were there for a semester. I asked what school supplies they needed. There was nothing. The PTA gave each teacher a stipend to buy the supplies needed for the classroom. I loved this idea. Some years I have been asked to buy reams of paper to supply the school with copy paper. This year I opted not to buy the paper. Just like I don't buy any other product that I would not normally use at home, Ie clorox wipes.

August 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa @Granola Catholic

I grew up in west Africa. We had to buy all our school supplies. We probably should have also bought chairs since there weren't even enough of those for all students. I remember kneeling in front of my desk a few times because I didn't get to school early enough to nab a chair. I remember erasing an entire notebook from the previous year so that I could use it again the next year (apparently erasers were more available than notebooks). These issues had more to do with availability than cost.

Now as a parent in the US, I love the idea of buying school supplies for my child because there is so much more available than what I had growing up. I am one of those people who hangs out in the school supplies aisle of Staples and salivates. But I wonder about waste and how to teach a child about making do with less when every year, a child going to school gets (or is bombarded by advertisements for) new supplies, new shoes, new clothes, new everything for the start of school.

August 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterA parent

Coming from a culture (West Africa) where an education must be gotten under such bare-bones circumstances must give you such a different perspective on this whole issue!

With respect to children being bombarded by advertisements: I agree. That is part of the reason we threw out our television over two years ago. The grades of both kids went way up, and they now both self-entertain very well and have great attention spans and are very good readers. We've never looked back. We've turned our backs on the rampant commercialism of society, and we are a happier family for it.

August 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSherry Jones

Denise, I can think of only one other group that provides supplies to their workplaces out of their own pockets off the top of my head: homeless shelter workers and those working in nonprofit human services. Many of us bring in donations of our own stuff to help out when the supplies at the facility run short. In practice, this normally ends up being our own new or gently-used towels, cups, coats, old magazines, craft supplies and the like. Personally, I've brought everything from food to toiletries to an old, but still working microwave to work.

The reason that I'm playing devil's advocate and supplying the counter example is because I think this "donating to the workplace" (read: spending money you may/may not have to have a decent place to work) is a trait linked to the current "more with less" attitudes of neoliberal governments, but also to feminized workplaces and the expectations placed on schools, shelters, drop-ins and other places that are supposed to supply "caring services" of one sort or another to find a way to make everything work and keep going with less and less, however that happens.

August 24, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlaura

As a teacher, (although in high school) and now as a parent with a school-age child, I would LOVE to have lists in bulk.

That being said, I tried to organize buying supplies in bulk one year at my school where I was teaching to save money, clear up confusion and make things easier on working parents. (I teach science so there actually are quite a few supplies for my classroom. ) What a disaster and I vowed never to do it again. Skeptical parents were at the top of the list of reason NOT to buy supplies in bulk. Two parents even had the nerve to ask me if I was profiting off of the sales. sigh.

Just the time spent collecting and sometimes hounding for the money was not worth the savings. Add to that busy teachers who had no time to meet and agree on supply lists, and

So, (in a long-winded way) I can see why this is not done more often although it seems like it would benefit all.

August 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterYelli

We talked about this at our PTO meeting last night. One of our goals may be to raise enough money to buy all needed supplies in bulk for the next year.

I can't imagine how gleeful the families will be.

August 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSara Kerr

In our same school district, there are schools where you can pay a flat fee, and they will give your student all the school supplies they need. I wish our school did that.

Instead, I went on a hunt for 1 yellow, 1 orange, 1 purple, 1 red, 1 blue plastic Mead 5 star folder...etc. Teachers want very specific items and they are hard to find sometimes.

I think the thing I have the most struggle with is that I am buying for other kids. The Teachers know that not all parents can or will buy the school supplies, so they ask for more than 1 child actually needs. So when I am buying 24 pencils, 2 packages of crayons, 12 glue sticks, 2 bottles of glue, paper, notebooks, scissors, etc...it is not only for my child but for other kids too.

I sound like I am very selfish when I write that, but I have more than 1 child to buy supplies for and it adds up. It is a bit of a hardship every year when it comes time to buy supplies.

And, while I realize the schools don't have any money (hello, they are slashing budgets left and right and losing teachers and raising class sizes), I do wish there were some other way to handle school supplies.

I don't know what the solution is, so I will continue to suck it up and buy supplies for the kids whose parent's don't/can't/won't.

August 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKim


That is interesting. When I buy 24 pencils, they all go into my son's pencil case, so I know that I am not buying for other children in the class. I would not, however, object if they did pool school supplies as long as they also pooled the purchasing of them. They only thing that gets pooled in our school is the kleenex (which I do provide) and the hand sanitizer (which I refuse to provide because I don't want my kid using it).

August 24, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting


I wouldn't want to put it on one teacher to organize. I would see it being something that the administration handled or that was outsourced to a third-party company or organization (e.g. parents' committee).

August 24, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I'm not sure how teachers and schools are expected to do more with less. I can tell you that when a student doesn't come to school with the proper supplies, it's the teacher that's forks the bill. Coming from a family with two teachers, I can tell you that they are not re-embursed for the money that they spend out of pocket.

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKalleyC

Whaaattt? Are you in Ontario? I'm hoping you asked for a review? The teacher is obliged to accommodate his documented needs, and you have every right to pursue additional accommodations through the system (I'm guessing you know this, based on your handle...)

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

I did this too! Just for my classroom. I had found awesome sales and deals for the supplies I wanted my students to have, and it came to $10/student.

I got in trouble with the principal. I wanted all the kids to have exactly the same supplies because I don't like them being bombarded with ads and cool erasers, etc., but he "reminded" me that it's a public school and the kids should be able to have cool school supplies if that want.

Isn't it messed up that it was the WEALTHY parents who were complaining that their kids couldn't have cool school supplies, instead of the poorer parents for whom $10 is a burden?

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKate

Oh, I know. This was after having done a full School Support Team-involved IPRC and after having both a psychologist and an OT sign off on it being a requirement for him to access the curriculum. I've had ... *interesting* experiences advocating for him in school boards in both Ottawa and Toronto. Everyone in his class will have a laptop this year, so we'll see how that goes. That said, this particular teacher had been teaching since the year I was born, and last year was her last before retiring. I've met with his new teacher, who seems much more interested in integrating his special interests, maintaining a strong tech presence in the classroom for everyone, and in identifying where he's struggling and building confidence in those areas. I sure as hell hope this year was better than last. I think we're really close to losing him as an engageable learner.

August 26, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlivingmysocialwork

As an elementary teacher in a public board in Ontario & as a parent of 2 students in a public school setting I see the issue of school supplies through two different lens. On one hand I know that without the supplies my classroom would not be as productive nor students prepared to learn. On the other hand as a parent, I want to make sure my own 2 have the best products on the market. Unfortunately, I have also seen how students have been embarrassed because they were unable to afford school supplies. I also send the teacher a back to school grab bag of extra supplies and have an box of "extras" in my classroom for all my students to use.
This is my first comment on Annie's blog, I must say I love the in depth comments & conversation.

August 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSherriemae23

I understand the frustration with having to purchase things like copy paper, wipes, and paper towels. However, the large, urban public school I work at does not provide these materials to us and given that I already spend anywhere from $500 to $1000 a year for classroom related expenses, I'm happy to get help wherever I can. This year, only 20/26 students brought enough notebooks. So I've purchased about 100 composition books for my kids. I'm not complaining. I love what I do. However, I do believe that the parents that don't pay attention to school supply lists or those who don't purchase the supplies are being selfish. The kids who don't bring in their supplies often have the nicest shoes, game systems, and computers at home. Most stores have huge sales during the summer. I'm not asking my kids to purchase glitter pens or poster paint - just the basics.

August 26, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermp

I'm from BC and our teacher (possibly school) is purchasing most of the supplies and we pay a flat free of $45. I like that way since it saves me time, possibly money and the teacher knows all the kids will have the right supplies.

August 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKelly

A back to school 'shopping event' is probably as annoying to me as 'Easter presents' (since when do we exchange presents at Easter?) or Valentine's day gift exchanges or any other commercialized event that we seem to need to go shopping for.

What do you really need for school? My kids' are starting Grade 1 and JK in Ontario, so I have no clue what is different NOW than how it was before when I was a kid (in Europe), but my god...shopping? Does it ever end? Pencils aren't enough anymore....Will someone tell me that my 6yo will need a laptop by the time he hits Grade 2?

August 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJavamom

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