Back to school season is a happy, hectic time. Kids enter new grades eager to meet new teachers and see old friends. Parents enjoy the return to a more rigid schedule, one that provides structure to family life after loose, fun summers. But what’s less exciting is the money they’re expected to shell out for the school supplies a new year demands. According to Junior Achievement USA, 60 percent of parents say that it’s a challenge to afford necessary school supplies.
And it’s not getting any easier. Communities in Schools, a non-profit organization that places staff in 2,300 schools nationwide, releases a report every summer known as the Backpack Index. It’s designed to estimate the financial burden on parents as they send their kids back to school.
To prepare the report, economists from Huntington Bank assemble a representative list of supplies and fees based upon lists from a cross-section of schools in eight states. They add up the fees along with the prices of moderately-priced versions of those supplies found online to come up with an estimated cost per student at elementary, middle, and high school levels. Over the past decade, the Backpack Index has shown that parents are shouldering a steadily increasing financial burden.
“As we have assessed the cost annually for the same supplies and fees over 11 years, we have seen significant outpacing of inflation,” said George Mokrzan, chief economist for Huntington Bank.
The price for necessary supplies is increasing, as is the amount of necessary supplies requested. “Year over year we are seeing is that schools are requiring much more of students,” said Steve Majors of Communities in Schools. Beyond the basics like pens and notebooks, more schools are mandating that students purchase expensive supplies like scientific calculators.
Schools are also charging more for extracurricular fees. “Studies have shown that kids who have access to those extracurricular activities are more well-rounded, are more emotionally grounded, and are better able to compete in the classroom and out in the workforce,” says Majors. Parents who understandably want their kids to have those advantages may choose to forgo purchasing other supplies in order to afford the fees.
These competing financial demands put many families in a tough situation.
“When a low-income family has to choose between whether or not they are going to go and fulfill the complete school supply list or put food on the table, that represents a larger burden than other families who might have the means to be able to do both things,” said Majors.
As more families struggle financially this time of year, a number of different entities have stepped in to help. On the front lines are teachers themselves.
A report from the federal National Center on Education Statistics showed that 94 percent of public school teachers spend their own money on supplies for their students. They spend an average of $479. Teachers in schools with at least 75 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch spend even more, $554.
But as recent teacher protests in Oklahoma, Arizona, and West Virginia have shown, expecting underpaid public school teachers to foot the bill for school supplies is not a long-term fix.
So what are some potential solutions to this problem? Majors thinks that more could be done at the community level.
“Local business and local faith-based groups certainly should be partnering with the schools in their community to ensure that the kids in their community have the resources they need.” He points to community partnerships as a major reason Communities in Schools can provide students with supplies.
Other national organizations can also play a role. The Kids in Need Foundation, for example, distributes supplies directly to students through a network of 40 resource centers that serve communities where at least 70 percent of children are on federal nutrition programs. Some teachers use crowdfunding sites to raise money for supplies. “The most common supplies that teachers probably purchase would be writing tools and notebooks, a lot of basic supplies that every student absolutely needs,” said Devon Karbowski of AdoptAClassroom.org.
Yet while these private organizations undoubtedly do good work, they lack the scale to solve the larger problem.
“We consider ourselves more of a Band-Aid. We’re here to help teachers who have these high needs and are asking for help,” said Karbowski. Majors talks about the growth of Communities in Schools into 26 states and the District of Columbia over the past 40 years. “We’ve grown to meet the need, but there’s always more to be done.”
Thus far, government efforts have proved similarly inadequate.
Seventeen states will have sales tax holidays for back to school shopping this year. These holidays save parents money, but it’s not the tax but the cost of the supplies themselves that makes up the bulk of the back to school financial burden.
Karbowski and Majors are understandably reticent to make overtly political statements, but Majors did say “No one would dispute the fact that our schools and our students could benefit from more resources.” The scale of the problem and the ethos of public education being free and accessible to all suggest that the government must be at least part of the solution.
A survey of teachers by AdoptAClassroom.org found that the average budget teachers are given for school supplies is $212. If that were raised dramatically, teachers could buy supplies for all of their students instead of asking strangers on the Internet to help make up the gap.
Unfortunately, the situation seems to be trending in the wrong direction. In 31 states, per-pupil education funding is below 2008 levels. If states increased their education budgets, districts and schools would have more money to buy supplies, give teachers the budget to buy supplies, and/or support nonprofits that provide supplies to the neediest students.
As parents continue to struggle to supply their children, the effects are deeper than dollars and cents. “Teachers definitely talk about how it’s a lot more difficult to teach when their students don’t have the supplies they need,” Karbowski said. Majors adds that being unprepared has “a tangible but not quantifiable effect on the confidence of kids as they come into school.”
It’s a simple equation. Preparedness breeds confidence breeds academic success. So to ensure every kid can be successful, the people who lead public education must augment, if not outright replace, the efforts of teachers and nonprofits to supply students in need. Those kids will do better in school, and their families will have one less thing to worry about come back to school season.