Learning Curve: Complaints grow as school supplies lists expand

Given all the cleaning products appearing on back-to-school supply lists, I half expect to see mops, brooms and floor polish next.

Today, backpack stuffers go well beyond pencils, paper and glue. Now, students return to class toting paper towels, spray cleaners and hand sanitizer.

As items on back-to-school lists have expanded, so have complaints from parents.

As a reader said to me in a note: “My friends are complaining the lists are very costly, and they are being asked to buy multiples of items such as scissors. Are schools asking more of parents, are fewer parents sending supplies or are parents just more strapped for cash? I’ve just never seen so much chatter and my complaining friends live in the most affluent county in the state. I wonder if the lists are affecting families in other areas even more.”

My local elementary school has now adopted what Neal Boortz, AM 750 and 95.5 FM News/Talk WSB personality and AJC columnist, derides as a conspiracy to inculcate children with a “tolerance of government control of property rights”: The teacher puts all school supplies into a common pool for students to use.

As one parent explained to the uninitiated about the world of communal supplies: “In other words, don’t buy your child the Spiderman folder; he’s not going to be able to use it.”

This wasn’t the case when my four went through elementary school. Sure, we bought tissues, plastic bags and hand soap to share, but children kept their own folders and markers.

I understand the resentment of parents whose children really wanted that Spiderman folder, but I also understand that the communal stockpile eliminates fights over whose Hello Kitty pencil fell on the floor. It also frees teachers from the costly responsibility of outfitting the students whose parents can’t or won’t send school supplies.

Teachers spend an estimated $1,000 out of their own pockets on school supplies annually, according to the National Education Association.

With all the financial challenges facing schools and teachers today, I am not going to quibble about back-to-school supply lists. I dutifully go out and buy everything that’s listed, even though I’ve found that some stuff never gets used.

(I still have some two-pocket/pronged folders and six-pocket dividers with tabs sitting around. Perhaps we ought to hold school supply swaps every year?)

I’ve also found that the grade-specific supply lists posted on the school sites don’t always reflect all the items a child needs. My twins began seventh grade last week and came home every day with other things they needed.

(This was my first year to deal with book covers. Here’s a tip. No matter what the package says, one size does not fit all. I would bring the book to the store if it is oversized before wasting $3.99.)

At this point, my back-to-school tab is $100, with the largest share going to the cleaning products. But I have yet to pay fall sports fees. Most public schools have some form of pay-to-play requirements for their sports programs to underwrite uniforms, snacks and equipment.

In its annual survey of back-to-school costs, Huntington Bank’s Backpack Index noted that parents are spending up to 25 percent more this year to fill their children’s school backpacks and pay for extracurricular activities, the largest jump since the bank began measuring costs six years ago. The bank blamed the increase on the surge in pay-to-participate fees, which at the high school level rose on average from $125 to $145.

According to Huntington’s survey of school supply lists, elementary school costs rose from $474 to $530 or 12 percent since last year; middle school costs shot up from $545 to $681 or 25 percent; and high school costs leapt from $1,000 to $1,091 or 9 percent.

Reeling from state budget cuts, more districts are expanding pay-to-play policies to their classrooms in what’s being described as pay to learn. Many schools now impose hefty fees to participate in all after-school clubs.

One New Jersey district charges $100 to join the literary magazine and the honor society. Some schools bill students for their AP textbooks.

A financially desperate Indiana district gave up busing students, turning the job over to a nonprofit that charges parents $50 a month per child. In a story on rising public school fees, The Wall Street Journal profiled a suburban Ohio couple who shelled out $4,446.50 in fees for their four children, including $75 in generic school fees, $118.50 for biology materials, $263 for AP exams and $3,990 to participate in cross-country, track and band. The couple nixed chorus for one of their kids because it meant another $200.

So it’s hard to justify indignation over having to buy a roll of paper towels or a box of communal pencils. Or even a broom, especially if my children learn how to use it.

Join in the conversation with Maureen Downey throughout the week on her Get Schooled blog.