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A Solution to the Costly School Supplies List

Do parents really have to buy ziplock bags?

Posted in ChicagoNow, August 7, 2014

Unless you have kids in school, this is one education issue you probably haven’t given much thought. But if you do have school-age kids, you most likely received an email with a supply list for your child’s grade level or class. Here are the problems with this “free market” approach to school supplies:

  1. It costs families far too much to pay retail for these supplies. Parents at my local school reported spending $100 per child on supplies. And that’s at big box stores like Target or Walmart.

  2. Some items are really hard to find. One parent reported searching all over town for an orange plastic folder and notebook. Many lists required plastic folders in specific colors that were not available at Target or Walmart or on Amazon. Folders often came in packs of colors & parents had to buy a whole pack to get the right color. Ridiculous. Don’t blame the parent who, after trying 10 different stores in search of the requested rainbow of plastic folders, rebelled and bought a set decorated with cute kittens.

  3. Many parents resent being told to buy specific brands or more expensive items like 100 pre-sharpened pencils. As one parent commented, why can’t the kids sharpen their own pencils at school?

  4. What about the kids whose parents have neither the money nor the time nor the transportation nor the inclination to buy all of this? Well, their kids (and really all the kids since these supplies are generally shared) get whatever our community can supply through charitable organizations. Problem is, these organizations have fallen on hard times and are turning to…Walmart. Yes, the same Walmart that won’t pay their parents a living wage will donate backpacks and basic supplies. There’s something wrong with that picture.

Of course, newbie parents are shocked to discover that, after all of that shopping and spending, the supplies they thought they bought for their child are dumped into a common pile and shared by all in the class. Many see this as fair enough, but one parent disagreed and wrote her child’s name on everything in permanent ink because of all her effort and expense. No way she felt like sharing.

The whole thing makes no sense to me. Buying in bulk and using the school’s tax-exempt status represents a huge savings and is the most equitable way to handle this. Parents at public schools would rather pay a school supply fee, even one factoring in paying for kids whose families can’t afford to contribute the full amount. A sliding scale could be implemented. I’m sure it would still come to less than $100/child.

I can anticipate the teachers’ argument against this arrangement:

  1. The supplies don’t last us the whole year when purchased in bulk at the beginning of the year. Well, this is a matter of budgeting the appropriate fee and saving some funds to replenish supplies mid-year. Surely an administrator could figure this out based on a per/child allocation.

  2. There are some specific things I like to have for my class that would not be on a common classroom supply list. For example, my granddaughter’s second grade teacher wanted every child to bring a white pillow case, which she was going to turn into a chair cover/supply holder for each of them.

Nice idea. Why not give each teacher a modest “room budget” (this could be factored into the school supply fee) for such things? This system worked fine at the preschool I directed. I think we can trust educators to make appropriate choices.

That’s it. Problem solved. The 40% discount for bulk purchasing, added to the 9% savings in sales taxes, gives our teachers and kids 50% more buying power. Everyone gets what is needed and parents are not being driven crazy shopping for all of this stuff. And we are not lining the pockets of retail stores (sorry Target).

Now what’s wrong with this solution? Maybe I’m missing something here.


by Laurie Levy
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