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School Supplies on a Budget

Buying school supplies has gotten expensive for parents, teachers and school districts.

At the Verona Area (Wis.) School District, administrators, teachers and parents have recently faced an increasingly common challenge: continuing to provide essential school supplies to their 4,500 students despite $1.1 million in budget cuts. Increasingly dependent on funding from parents, the district has raised dozens of school fees for various student activities and added many items to the required school supply lists sent home every year. In addition to the traditional notebooks and writing tools, parents are also asked to purchase additional items, including plastic bags, disinfecting wipes, paper cups and hand sanitizer. Verona schools are also asking for parent donations of art supplies and copy paper, and even extra funds, which the district can spend on specific supply needs. "It all adds up," says Necia Bray, mother of two elementary students. "It's a highly praised school district, but you have to pay for it," she told Seth Jovaag of the Verona Press. If parents are unable to supply what is necessary, however, some teachers have to pay for what the district no longer provides. "The more budgets get cut, the more we take out of our pockets," says kindergarten teacher Jennifer Skibba, who estimates she spends $1,000 annually on supplies.

Ambiguous Policies


Which supplies should be provided by schools as part of a free public education, and which can districts legally expect parents to purchase? No federal guidelines exist on the subject. Instead, most districts look to state laws and legal precedents for guidance. Even at the state level, however, official policies are interpreted differently. The Iowa Department of Education, for example, recently cited state legal cases in articulating its supplies policy, in response to frequent inquiries. The department states on its Web site that "parents sometimes need a reminder that a 'tuition-free school' does not mean that schools cannot charge certain fees," which may include asking parents to purchase supplies. While stating unequivocally in its policy that "if an item is essential to the instruction of a class, the item must be supplied for free," the Iowa DOE also insists that "not all supplies may truly be called 'school supplies.' A fee may be charged [to parents] for paper, pencils, or pens purchased by the district and used by students because, while clearly important to the education process, they are not essential to the teacher's presentation of a course."

In West Virginia, the Department of Education cites the precedent set by a state Supreme Court decision in 1995, which established, without being specific, that only items which are "an integral and fundamental part" of the educational process must be provided by districts free of charge. Similarly, a 1997 Ohio state Supreme Court decision stated that schools only need to provide the supplies necessary to offer a "thorough and efficient" education for all students. Such vague government policy positions are common, so more specific decisions are left to the interpretation of district leaders.

As a result, the supplies provided by schools are often limited only by their district's budget, rather than specific official guidelines. When budgets are tight, district administrators must sometimes choose between supplies and other needs. For example, due to constraints in their new budget passed in April, Littleton (Mass.) Public Schools will cut back on supplies in favor of increasing spending on professional development, even though the schools have run short of copy paper each of the last few years. "This [funding for professional development] is in lieu of increased supplies and materials" says Superintendent Diane Bemis. "We're not going to ask teachers or students to go without paper," she says, but to prevent a shortage, administrators now ask teachers to only photocopy what is absolutely necessary and to use both sides of the page. Consequently, the district's Russell Street Elementary School has lengthy lists of needed back-to-school supplies and asks for community donations throughout the year on its Web site.

Bridging the Supply Gap

To help bridge the gap, many teachers are buying more materials than ever for their classrooms. The most recent study by the National School Supply and Equipment Association found that in the 2005-2006 school year, teachers spent an average of $552 on school supplies and instructional materials, up from $458 in 2003-2004. In addition, 93 percent of teachers in 2005-2006 spent their own money on supplies, up from 87 percent in 2004-2005 and 75 percent in 2000-2001.

"This tax break only makes sense for lawmakers because it allows them to avoid making real reforms." -Matt Gardner, Texas state tax policy director, Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy

Despite this increase, many items cut from district budgets will inevitably end up on supply lists for parents. "Unfortunately, we're seeing a national trend of parents' supply lists getting longer and more diverse, as schools are asked to do more and more with less and less," says James Martinez, spokesman for the National Parent Teacher Association. At many schools, parents are asked to purchase multiple boxes of tissues, copy paper, plastic baggies, hand sanitizer, hand soap, disinfecting wipes, paper towels and garbage bags, all in addition to more traditional school supplies. In Alabama, state Sen. Hank Sanders testified in May against proposed state education budget cuts because past cuts had resulted in parents "having to supply their child's own toilet paper," a situation reached around the country, including in New York City and Detroit Public Schools. Many grade levelspecific supply lists have grown to one or two full pages, with dozens of specific items, and individual teachers may add their own requirements beyond that.

Supply Costs Increase

While many parents are asked to buy more school supplies than ever, the costs of supplies also continue to increase with infl ation. As a result, national back-toschool consumer spending has increased signifi cantly, reaching $18.4 billion in 2007, up from $17.6 billion in 2006 and $13.4 billion in 2005, according to the National Retail Federation.

Families spent an average of $94 on essential school supplies out of a total of $563.49 in back-to-school shopping in 2007, up from $86.22 out of $527 in 2006, and $81.83 out of $443.77 in 2005. For families already facing financial strain due to rising gasoline, food and health care costs in a lagging economy, this increase will be more diffi cult to face at the beginning of the new school year.

Suspending Sales Taxes

To provide relief for consumers dealing with increasing back-to-school expenses, 14 state governments have suspended the sales tax on school supplies in July or August, including New York, Michigan and Tennessee, while other states, including Oklahoma and Illinois, are in the process of approving similar measures. Despite its popularity with voters, back-to-school sales tax relief can still be vulnerable: Florida recently cut back its sales tax holiday from 10 days to seven to minimize the loss of revenue. And unfortunately, suspending state sales taxes, most of which are between 5 and 8 percent, isn't enough to help many families afford the supplies they need, and critics characterize the measures as political pandering. "This tax break only makes sense for lawmakers because it allows them to avoid making real reforms," says Matt Gardner, Texas' tax policy director at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, about his state's back-to-school tax holiday.

Taking It Back

Some districts, however, have been able to resist the trend by shortening their lists, if and when their budgets allow. Patrick McDermott, assistant superintendent for business and finance of Freeport (Ill.) School District 145, felt that "parents should not be responsible for many of the items" on the growing lists of supplies his district sent home. He decided the district could remove some items from their lists that many districts routinely request, such as erasers, scissors, calculators and paper, and add them to the overall district budget. Only the more "personal" items, such as gym shoes, backpacks or pencils, were left for parents to purchase. "Our purchasing department can buy in bulk, and we are exempt from sales taxes, so we're paying a lot less than parents would have to pay for the same items," he says. Similarly, St. Charles Parish (La.) Public Schools shortened their supply lists in April after many parents complained that they were unable to afford all the supplies. "Costs were exceeding $100 per student," says school board member Stephen Crovetto. The district now pays for many supplies it once asked parents to provide, including paper towels, tissues and plastic bags, and has standardized supply lists across schools, so all district parents will have to supply the same few items.

It is intended to ease the burden on parents. "There is no way the district will ever be able to supply the basics," Crovetto adds. "I think every parent understands they do have to buy some basic supplies for their child to attend public school."

Kurt O. Dyrli is products editor.