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Sue Lani Madsen: Back to school shopping doesn’t have to be a hassle

Almost September, and time for freshly sharpened pencils, unopened packages of fat crayons and pads of blank paper full of possibilities.

Students have always been expected to bring their own basic supplies. The cost of fully funding the supplies list for a typical 5th grader is $30 to $60 or more per child depending on the district, not counting gym shoes and a backpack.

Back to school shopping lists are a tradition in most districts, now downloadable from websites instead of taped to the school’s front door. Parents agree the lists help focus on what students need instead of what they’re begging for. Teachers like JoLynn R. point out the benefit of all students having the same supplies so the class can focus on learning. And Ryan G. said the lists can be helpful when a child shows up with way too much stuff to be able to say “please take that home, it’s not on the list.”

Parents who buy fidget spinners but complain about notebooks and paper are sending the wrong message. As teacher Jennie W. put it, “Buying school supplies teaches your children to be prepared for their job, which is school.” But parents and teachers acknowledge sometimes lists have gotten out of hand.

Spokane Public Schools has taken districtwide steps to rein in back to school lists and reduce the burden on parents, stating “general classroom supplies such as pencils, glue, crayons, scissors, markers and tissue are provided by the district.” The only recommended parent-provided supplies for Kindergarten through Grade 2 are gym shoes and a backpack. For upper elementary grades, a short list of items such as binders, paper, pens and spiral or composition books are recommended.

Not all districts have followed their example. Many school districts include disinfectant wipes as back to school items for cleaning desks. Others ask for teacher supplies like sticky notes, correcting pens and dry erase markers. Medical Lake School District’s 5th grade supply list for Hallett Elementary includes two large boxes of tissues and four boxes of 24 sharpened pencils, with a bold notice “to be replaced as needed.” With 180 days of school, each student can grind up half a pencil a day with a half dozen pencils left over in June. When requests seem excessive, parents feel free to edit.

As part of fully funding education, the Washington Legislature has increased the amount budgeted for Maintenance, Supplies & Operating Costs. How it’s spent is up to the district. Relying on parent-funded general classroom supplies is as much a matter of district budget priorities and unexamined habits as a result of tight budgets.

And it’s not an option at schools serving a high percentage of low income families. Erin S. teaches at a high poverty school where conversation on how to have necessary supplies available for students is constant.

Teachers are well-known for investing their own money into their classrooms and students. Although many parents said they voluntarily try to buy a little extra for the teacher out of generosity, being commanded to buy supplies to stock a general classroom cupboard fosters resentment. It’s also inefficient. Shelley S. finds it frustrating to be asked to buy small quantities of items for shared use that could be purchased at a better price in bulk.

Brenda G. has been coordinating a small multi-district back to school supply drive for seven years. “Kids don’t want to feel different because they don’t have something,” she said. Every school has a different list of essential supplies; sometimes every teacher in the same grade at the same school has a different list. Because the drive serves only about 100-115 students per year, she takes the time to download individual classroom lists and put together backpacks specific to each child. It lets her take advantage of buying in bulk and stick to priority items to spend donated dollars wisely.

Ultimately it falls to school district leadership to decide spending priorities for public funds. Total school funding from all sources has risen by over 1/3 in the last five years to an estimated $14,200 per student in the 2018-2019 school year. That should buy a few pencils, crayons and tissues.