As millions of students head back to school in coming weeks, they’ll be toting more than just a few notebooks and a backpack. Increasingly, public schools are leaning on families to outfit entire classrooms, asking them to supply items as varied as cardstock, copier paper, hand sanitizer and Band-Aids.
“The supply list that used to be sent home was very short — you were asked to bring a notebook and pencils and pens and paper,” said Michael Griffith, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan think tank. “We’ve seen that list creep up and up, and now you start seeing things like tissues and toilet paper and cleaning supplies. Things you weren’t normally asked to bring a decade ago. It’s a hidden type of fee.”
With school districts strapped for funds and looking to trim expenses, many have turned to parents for help with basic supplies that many people assume are part of a school district’s operating budget.
Tim Sullivan, a former teacher, founded TeacherLists.com, a Web site on which 800,000 teachers have posted their supply lists for the coming school year. Among the items on the lists: standard erasers and pencils, trash bags and disinfecting wipes.
“You see complaints from parents who say, ‘Gosh, seriously? I have to provide paper? There are no tissues at school?’ ” Sullivan said. “I’m 46, and I can remember big rolls of paper towels, big industrial-size tissue boxes. Very few districts are buying their own tissues now.”
For the coming school year, families, on average, will spend $642 for elementary school students, $918 for middle school students and $1,284 for high school students, according to a recent study by Huntington Bank. Those amounts include not only school supplies but also fees, which schools are increasingly charging for extracurricular activities, workbooks, textbooks and the use of school laboratories.
Since the bank first started analyzing school spending in 2007 as part of its “Backpack Index,” costs have increased 83 percent for elementary school students, 73 percent for middle-schoolers and 44 percent for high school students. The bank measures the cost of classroom supply lists and school fees in six states: Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia and Kentucky.
Those rising costs, which far outpace the rate of inflation and wage increases, place a particular burden on the growing number of students from low-income families in the nation’s public schools.
Felicia Massie, a 57-year-old resident of Northeast Washington, fretted last year because she couldn’t afford to buy school supplies for her youngest son, David, then a student at Cardozo High School.
“It makes you feel like you’re less than a mother,” said Massie, who is disabled and lives on food stamps and $750 a month from Social Security. “It makes you cry in the middle of the night. . . . When this child was born, I had so many hopes and dreams I thought I would be able to provide for, and then life happens and your body breaks down. You feel like less than nothing.”
Massie found out about Communities In Schools, a national nonprofit organization that provides support to 1.5 million students in high-poverty schools, including Cardozo. “They gave him a backpack of school supplies, a calculator, ink, pencils, paper, notebook. Just the calculator alone is $30. I couldn’t afford that. They gave him everything the school is supposed to provide.”
A D.C. Public Schools spokeswoman declined to answer questions about school requests for supplies.
While nearly all schools frame supply lists as a request and not a requirement, the assumption that families will comply is stressful for those with low incomes, said Dan Cardinali, president of Communities In Schools.
“This expansion of school supply expectations beyond just the student becomes not just another barrier, it sends out a signal to a family that you’re inadequate,” Cardinali said. “It tells them that not only can’t they outfit their kid, now they can’t support the institution, either.”
Cuts to education budgets have meant bigger class sizes and fewer programs in many school districts, and schools are increasingly turning to families to fill in gaps. An analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that 35 states spent less per student in 2014 than they had before the Great Recession.
At the same time, public schools have more students who come from low-income families. In the 2012-2013 school year, 51 percent of students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade were eligible for the federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches.
Nanette Anderson, a disabled, unemployed single mother of six, struggles to come up with money for supplies and fees requested by the public schools in her small community of Ottawa, Kan.
When her three younger sons return to high school this week, they won’t have all the supplies their teachers requested. “If people ain’t got it, they ain’t got it,” said Anderson, 44, whose family relies on $700 a month from Social Security.
“All of this extra stuff — tissues, Germ-X — she can’t provide, she has to go in and talk to the principal and stuff to tell him there’s no way she can afford it,” said daughter Kimber Linnell, 21. “We use whatever we already have, like old binders that aren’t torn or shredded; we get mechanical pencils so all you have to do is replace the lead.”
Cardinali, of Communities In Schools, said “supply creep” is a gradual phenomenon that isn’t getting the attention it deserves.
“There either has to be an honest conversation on a public level about what expectations are for families to supply schools directly out of their own pocketbook or a reallocation around budgets in terms of supplying schools with the resources they need,” he said. “We really ought to have a public conversation about this.”