There's no getting around it: School supplies are expensive. And because of school budget cuts, a larger portion of the cost of outfitting classrooms falls on parents and teachers. However, some communities are devising innovative solutions from teaming up with charities to holding donation drives and launching crowdfunding campaigns, to make sure students have much-needed school supplies. Read on to learn why so many schools struggle to pay for supplies and discover ways you can help stock a classroom near you while easing the burden on parents and teachers.
Supplying Cash-Strapped Schools
Schools were hit hard by the 2008 recession and the subsequent slow economic recovery. In fact, 35 states provided less overall state and local funding per student in 2014 than they did in 2008.
Districts in low-income areas have struggled most. They don't receive as much property tax revenue as schools in wealthier areas and are thus most vulnerable to state budget cuts. They tend to also receive less money from Parent Teacher Association (PTA) fundraising. Furthermore, parents in disadvantaged areas have the hardest time purchasing items on the supply lists schools send home at the beginning of the school year.
Supply lists have been around for decades, but today's lists often include items schools once provided, such as multiple reams of copy paper, paper towels, paper cups, trash bags, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and bandages. Flash drives, headphones, and calculators are also commonly required. Some schools request parents buy expensive brands of items because the quality is better. And other schools charge a supply fee in addition to sending out the supply list. The costs add up for parents.
According to the Huntington Backpack Project, elementary-school parents spend about $195 per student per year for supplies. Middle school parents shell out about $327 per student annually, and high school parents spend about $374. The average family pays about $630.36 for back-to-school shopping needs, including supplies, clothes, and electronics, according to the National Retail Federation.
Few schools tell parents that purchasing school supplies is voluntary, but some critics contend that requiring parents to buy expensive school supplies is a hidden fee that erodes children's right to a free public education. There are no federal guidelines on whether schools can ask parents to pay for supplies and fees. State laws and legal precedents on the matter are often vague and open to interpretation.
For example, the Iowa Department of Education says school districts cannot ask parents to pay for "supplies essential to the instruction of the class." However, Iowa districts can ask parents to purchase or pay fees for non-essential supplies, a category that includes pens and paper. West Virginia states that school districts must provide items for free which are "an integral and fundamental part" of the educational process.
California passed a law in 2012 curtailing the fees and supplies the state's public schools can ask parents to buy. Districts can no longer ask parents for fees for photography or art supplies, PE uniforms, science lab equipment, and a number of other items deemed essential.
However, classrooms need supplies, whether parents can afford them or not. And in areas with tight school budgets and economically depressed households, teachers often step in to fill the void.
Teachers Filling the Gap
On average, teachers receive $300 from their schools and $247 from their school districts to stock classrooms. Some receive additional money from grants and fundraising efforts. However, not all schools even have a supply budget. And too often, there's a sizable gap between the amount of money teachers receive and the amount required to stock classrooms with basics.
Ninety-one percent of teachers report spending out-of-pocket money to stock classrooms. In 2016, teachers spent an average of $487 of their own money for classroom supplies, instructional materials, books, and professional development. One in 10 teachers spent more than $1,000 a year. At the high end, some teachers report spending $5,000 or more out-of-pocket each year on books and supplies. For unreimbursed purchases, teachers can claim a $250 deduction on their federal tax returns.
A spate of articles in local and national newspapers and magazines highlight teachers buying essential classroom supplies, such as paper towels. Sadly, teachers are coming out behind. "Teaching is the only job where professionals steal supplies from home to bring to work," a commenter joked on an online forum.
Some communities have rallied to buy supplies and ease the burden for parents and teachers. If you want to help stock a classroom near you, one of these innovative solutions may be the answer.
Buy in bulk
In Greece, New York, the local teacher's union teamed with the school district to analyze the district's stock of supplies, cut waste, and buy only essential supplies at wholesale prices. The result? The district lowered parents' beginning-of-the-year expenses for supplies from $100 or $120 per student to as little as $10 and even zero, in some cases.
In other areas, parents or teachers pool together to buy supplies in bulk and save money. At one North Carolina elementary school, parents have the option to purchase supplies individually or pay into a parent-teacher association pool to buy school supplies in bulk for between $50 to $75.
Team up with a charity
Many economically disadvantaged children receive shoes, backpacks, and basic supplies from charities each year. The number of organizations holding donation drives and events across the U.S. to distribute supplies is long and includes:
Cradles to Crayons
Kids in Need Foundation
4 Kids Charity
Communities in Schools
The Boys & Girls Club
United Way Worldwide
Many churches also do local donation drives. One caveat: Charities sometimes distribute different supplies and brands than what is requested by schools. But charities help kids get some of the basics, which can help fill supply closets and make children feel more ready for school. Some organizations also sponsor supply grants that teachers can apply for.
Hold a supply drive
If you can't find a charity distributing supplies in your area, consider starting your own donation drive.
Educators turn to crowdfunding campaigns on Donors' Choose and Go Fund Me to stock classrooms with supplies and equipment. Donors can scroll through thousands of teacher campaigns at any given time. Some organizations and donors offer matching funds on these sites, which increases an individual donor's power to make a difference in a classroom. Crowdfunding campaigns require work—often by already overworked teachers—but they can be an incredible way to attract attention from non-local donors and raise funds relatively quickly. They also offer an easy and accessible way for anyone to support a school in need.
America's school budgets have struggled to recover from the recession, and in many areas, parents and teachers are purchasing supplies districts once purchased. Until budgets recover, communities can pull together to make sure kids and schools have the supplies they need.
Wondering how your local schools are faring? Call and ask your district what supplies they need most. If they're like many districts, they could probably use some paper towels, reams of copy paper, and boxes of #2 pencils.
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