Back-to-school supplies costs are up

The cost of back-to-school supplies like crayons, pens and paper and new uniforms is on the rise at the same time that school districts are asking parents to provide a growing list of classroom items.

The average family with children in grades K-12 plans to spend $630.36 on electronics, apparel and other school needs, according to a recently released survey by the National Retail Federation. That cost is down slightly from $669.28 last year, though average spending on back-to-school has grown 42 percent the past 10 years. Total spending is expected to reach $24.9 billion.

In addition to providing the basics for students, parents are expected to contribute more items to schools. Products like Clorox wipes, paper towels, Ziploc bags and copier paper used for class handouts – items once typically provided by the schools – are now being foisted on parents due to school budget constraints, education experts say.

“This year is still one of the highest spending amounts in survey history,” said Kathy Allen, a spokeswoman for the retail federation. “It may be down, but it is still very much higher than even a few years ago.

Georgia and other states have significantly slashed education funding in the last decade or so, putting a greater financial strain on school systems, which pass on the burden to parents with ballooning school supply lists. In Georgia, where nearly 62 percent of students receive free and reduced lunches, many financially pinched families need help paying for the burgeoning back-to-school costs and must often times get assistance from faith-based and other charitable groups.

In terms of total sales and traffic, back-to-school spending is now second only to the Christmas shopping season, Allen said.

The state’s back-to-school state sales tax holiday meant to help families with this cost is slated this year for July 31 to Aug. 1. But it’s often still not enough, with many families needing extra help.

Lift Up Atlanta, a nonprofit which assists needy families, started providing free backpacks filled with school supplies to metro Atlanta area families in 2011 after hearing from hundreds of teachers and parents, who said students were struggling to pay for the supplies. The group handed out about 200 backpacks last year and expects to give out as many or more this summer as well.

“It’s all the basic things people take for granted, because we have families living paycheck to paycheck,” said Rosalind Garner, executive director for Lift Up Atlanta. “School supplies have really gotten expensive. The list has gone beyond scissors and notebook paper and all that. They now ask you to provide all of these different things.”

“They now request students to provide their own copy paper,” she added. “I was floored.”

To help families deal with the costly supplies, large urban school systems in the U.S. have started to host backpack and school supply drives. Atlanta Public Schools is holding the first-of-its-kind back-to-school event July 25 at the Atlanta Metropolitan State College, aimed at helping families in APS prepare for the new school year, which begins Aug. 5.

With over 70 exhibitors, the free event will offer health screenings, on-site enrollment and registration, APS programs and services, community and afterschool resources, in addition to a free backpack stuffed with school supplies. The district expects to give out close to 5,000 backpacks, with the supplies funded by a number of donors.

“We want an opportunity for all of our families and students to come out,” said James Malone, a spokesman for APS. “It’s to make sure our kids are prepared for day one of school. This is something we want to offer our families.”

Jennifer Mutter, a mother of three school-age children, said she’s recently separated from her husband, relying on just her income and struggling to pay for back-to-school supplies; two of her children attend schools in Banks County, while the other attends a school in Gwinnett, she said.

Mutter said she’ll be receiving backpacks filled with school supplies from Lift Up Atlanta and is grateful.

“It was hard because I had to make the choice — I’ve got to get them in school, buy them clothes. I couldn’t even afford anything,” she said. “There’s a lot of people that have the same struggles I do.”

Even middle-income families can feel financially strained this time of year, retail experts say. The national retail survey, which did not provide a state-by-state breakdown, showed that the downward economy a few years ago “certainly threw a wrench in how school districts started relying on parents.…School districts across the country started suffering after the recession, and this was a big part of the addition to the school season,” Allen said.

The amount of spending went up in 2012 because “…parents had no choice but to replenish everything because during the recession they really had to reuse everything they could because they didn’t have the budget for it. So now we’re kind of leveling out a little bit.”

Parents are savvier than ever when it comes to back-to-school shopping and are looking for sales and great deals, retail experts say.

Bryan Leach, CEO of Ibotta, a cash-back and savings smartphone app, says parents can save money on school supplies by getting an early start. He suggests making a list of needed items to comparison shop online to find the best sales and deals.

“You really need to kind of invest the time,” Leach said. “If you’re willing to put more time in, you can definitely save more money. A lot of people just show up (at stores) and hope for the best, but that’s not really the way to save the most.”

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