Back to School: Schools Pass the Hat...And Parents Feel the Crunch

Back to SchoolOn the first day of school last year, the courtyard of my daughter's elementary school looked like the aftermath of a natural disaster. Hundreds of parents and children milled around, clutching trash bags full of supplies. My wife and I carried our own sacks, filled with more than $250 worth of markers, grading pens, Ziploc bags and copier paper. Over the past few days, we had rushed from store to store, gathering a huge pile of supplies, many of which my daughter would never touch.

I was no stranger to the yearly quest for school supplies: When I was a kid, every August was marked by a trip to the store for folders and pencils, perhaps with a few boxes of tissues thrown in. Years later, when I bought school supplies for my youngest sister, the list had broadened to include a few administrative items, but it was still modest, largely consisting of products that my sister would directly use.

A Boon for Businesses...A Burden for Families

For my daughter, though, the pile of office products was so large that neither my wife nor I could carry it alone, and the school didn't bother to disguise the fact that many of the items were destined for the front office. What's more, this phenomenon wasn't limited to my daughter's school. According to a recent study, parents spent more than $68 billion on school supplies in 2011. In context, it's not surprising that Staples office supply stores have long referred to the back-to-school season as "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year."

But while the August rush may be great for retailers, it's not a wonderful deal for parents. "The yearly supply lists are growing," says Betsy Landers, President of the National PTA. "And they're becoming a greater burden on families."

A big part of the problem is that parents are increasingly being called upon to make up for cuts in educational funding. "In the economic squeeze of the last few years, education has always been one of the first things cut," Landers points out. "There are new cuts every single year, and they're making schools do more with less. Ultimately, federal and state budgets are being balanced on the backs of parents and students."

Location is Everything

To a great extent, the impact of education cuts -- and the amount of money that individual families have to pay -- depends on locality. "Federal cuts force the states to pick up the slack, and state cuts force local municipalities to pick up the slack," Landers points out. In wealthier school districts, she explains, local taxes cover a lot of the income shortfall, but poorer districts often have to fill the budget gap by cutting programs or asking parents to buy office supplies.

In other words, depending upon the state or locality, the amount of money spent on each student can vary wildly -- as can the source of that money. In the 2009 school year, for example, Alaska, Wyoming, New York and New Jersey led the pack, spending over $16,000 per pupil. On the other end of the spectrum, Idaho, Utah, Arizona and Oklahoma spent less than half that.

But total spending only tells half the story. In Mississippi, for example, federal funding accounted for 15.6% of education expenses, and localities picked up 31% of the tab. Meanwhile, in New Jersey, one of the top education spenders, only 4.1% of educational funding came from the federal government; individual localities picked up more than 50% of the tab for their schools.

A Steady Stream of Fundraisers

Schools' appeals to parents take many forms. In addition to the yearly back to school bonanza, many schools have become reliant on almost constant fundraising. "PTAs are fundraising in what we think are record amounts," Landers notes. "They are trying to make up the difference, and support the educational experience."

The trouble, Landers argues, is that the cycle of supply lists and fundraisers can distract from the central problem. By underwriting the costs of underfunded schools, she claims, fundraising can make it seem like cuts to education don't have any consequences. "It can give a free pass to our elected officials who are responsible for funding the educational system," she says.

For parents, rising school costs and stagnating incomes are forcing some difficult decisions. According to a recent survey by HatchedIt, an online planning site, many parents are cutting corners on their children's expenses. While school supplies are somewhat non-negotiable, the site found that 27% of parents were relying heavily on generic brands to cut costs. Meanwhile, many planned to save in other areas: 45% said that they were trimming their clothing budget to make ends meet.

This year, my wife and I enrolled in Amazon prime, which gave us free shipping -- and made the online supplier a good bet for most of my daughter's supplies. All told, the site saved us over $100 -- a small pile of money that's already earmarked for candles, chocolate, and all the other PTA fundraisers that we are sure to see before Christmas hits.

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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Anthony Leem

I wonder if the disparity in out-of-pocket spending on your child's school/office supplies is offset by having to pay lower property taxes. only so much can be variable, and a lot of these are fixed costs, whether it's paid via taxes or out-of-pocket every September.

September 10 2012 at 1:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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August 29 2012 at 9:33 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I would say that's a huge list, but I do remember having lists like that when my kids were younger. The worst was when one middle school specified a brand for spiral notebooks that were something like $7-$8 each, and we needed at least 5 of them. Then to make matters worse, they had the kids paste worksheets on the pages, and then counted off if they fell out.

August 28 2012 at 10:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I nearly choked when I saw the price written, $6.75 each for marble notebooks a/k/a composition books...I just saw them in the local dollar store for $1.19 (seems like nothing is 99 cents anymore)

August 28 2012 at 9:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to penlady708's comment

I think I got them for $.99, definitely no more than $1.50 at Target in Austin, TX.

August 28 2012 at 10:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I looked again- I actually think it said $1.75.

August 28 2012 at 10:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My son is in the second grade. This year I bought everything on the list except for the janitorial supplies (never again), placed one of each item in his backpack and stored the rest in my home office. When he runs out, I'll restock his backpack with only the items that he needs in solo numbers. Last year I sent him to school with everything as directed by the school and later learned his so-called teacher had confiscated most of the goods that I had bought for my son and he never saw them again. This so-called teacher also gave the first graders a test on the SECOND day of school (mind you she hadn't even taught anything yet) and tried to factor the understandably poor test grades into the final grade until I complained to the principal who made this nut recalculate the final grades. I will breathe a sigh of relief when my son graduates from high school in ten years, lol! I'm paying for college but he'll be responsible for fghting his own academic wars. I'm an older mom and this stuff wears you out.

August 28 2012 at 9:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As much as many people do not like Wal-Mart We spent about $30 bucks for almost all the stuff on this list. They had most of the items costing from 5 cents to 97 cents. So that is not that much for what was needed. You have tbe willing to go to the places that are cheap for the supplies not the local Staples, Office Max or Office Depot. What you would spend there you could get enough for the enitre class from Wal-MArt.

August 28 2012 at 8:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I don't get all the comments about only buying for your own kid. What difference does it make? Do you really think they have enough separate storage space for 20-30 kids? The teacher should waste 10-15 minutes making sure each kid has out the appropriate supplies? So, while doing a craft project 25 kids should have 25 bottles of glue opened on the tables at once? That's just silly. All supplies are stored together. Put out a few bottles of glue for the kids to share. When those are gone, open more bottles. Makes way more sense. Same with paper, crayons etc.
Granted, his daughter's list is longer than my Grandson's was, but he's only in kindergarten. And where does this guy shop? I'd be curious as to where they live. By Marble notebooks I assumed he meant Composition books, but now I'm not so sure. Not at $1.75 ea. Staples has them on sale for 10 cents. We bought everything else at Walmart. We even bought the optional teacher supplies like dry erase markers. The schools can no longer afford to supply the teachers properly and teachers can't afford it either. I'm on Social Security, so it's not like I have an over abundance of money. But, I also know every August is going to be school supplies.

August 28 2012 at 8:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If my kid came home with a list like that, I'd laugh and throw it in the garbage. In no way would I comply with such stupidity!

August 28 2012 at 8:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Whty don't we cut cost where it is needed in teachers pays, insurance and pinsions as that is where our tax dollars go. Has anyone looked at the books our children read from its a discrase. But teachers pay and pensions keep rising at a rate that the home owners are faced to pay. Many people are not able to keep their homes in many areas of this great country becuase of the high pays and all else that the home owners must pay out, and they lose their homes because of it. I know that theachers will say they are due all this but as many families have to do is cut our spending to make ends meet. Drive our old cars, pay our insurance, along with our other bills. Teachers just wanp more and more. Is there no end to all this.

August 28 2012 at 8:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to ajt1025's comment
Helen Saghy

A teacher just risked his life to disarm a student who was shooting a shotgun at my children's high school Monday. They don't get paid nearly enough for this drivvel from you.

August 28 2012 at 8:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Cut teachers pay? Most teachers barely make enough to make a living on. I don't think they get paid enough to deal with some of these kids.

August 28 2012 at 11:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's the 21st century, so yes they might need a graphing calculator. Beyond that, the kids need a notebook and a couple of pens. Beyond that, the TEACHERS should pay for it! (if teachers knew what parents and staples employees are laughing about over in the corner, I'd bet they'd be quite shocked about what people really think about those lists).

August 28 2012 at 8:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to T's comment
Helen Saghy

A teacher just risked his life to disarm a student who was shooting a shotgun at my children's high school Monday. They don't get paid nearly enough for this drivvel from you.

August 28 2012 at 8:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply