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Stop the madness

School supply lists go overboard

By Sarah C. McKenzie Special to the Democrat-Gazette

This article was published August 12, 2017 at 2:07 a.m.

You can see them throughout the state: parents and students hunting for items on the school supply lists from their local public schools. How much do these supplies cost, what is on the lists, and why are families being asked to foot the bill? What about students who can't afford to get the items on the list?

Most Arkansas schools have supply lists posted online, and there is variation in items identified as "must haves for learning" for students. The requested supplies for third-graders in one district differ from those for third grade in other districts. Supplies by grade typically differ between schools within the same district, and sometimes even between classrooms within the same school. How can there be so many differences in what supplies students need to learn successfully?

Most lists identify between 10 and 20 items that students need for learning. The lists include traditional supplies like pencils, crayons, pens, paper, glue, and erasers as well as modern items like dry-erase markers and Post-it notes, and items such as headphones, earbuds, and flash drives for students to use in combination with the school's technology device. Many lists include boxes of Kleenex, bottles of hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, and Ziploc bags, which seem more related to classroom cleanliness and organization than to student learning.

The cost of the items on the list varies as much as the content. In the sample of supply lists examined, the total would run families between $40 and $160 per student. The cost wasn't consistently related to grade level (kindergarten supplies weren't consistently more expensive than junior high supplies or vice versa), or with the level of poverty of students in the school. The technology items (headphones, earbuds, flash drives) were among the priciest items on the lists at $6 or $7 each, and the non-instructional supplies were also relatively expensive at $4 or $5 for Clorox wipes and Ziploc bags. The most expensive item requested was a graphing calculator for students in higher grades. At $100, this is a significant cost for most families.

School lists were very specific about folders and binders. Certain colors of folders, including the number of prongs or pockets, were listed as well as information regarding the color and width of the binders.

Many school lists request specific brands of supplies, such as Ticonderoga pencils, Fiskars scissors, and Crayola crayons and markers. These brands are more expensive than other available products, and perhaps teachers request them because the quality impacts learning in the classroom. A few more dollars for quality supplies may not seem like too big an ask for a year of learning, but there are families who don't have extra money to spend on brand-name pencils, particularly if the pencils are, as noted on many lists, going into the "community supplies" for the classroom.

The specificity of items may be intended to improve the learning environment. Ticonderoga pencils may break less frequently, leading to less disruption when students need to sharpen them, and it may be easier to see if all students have the "red folder" out rather than the "math folder." Each teacher has his/her own ideas about what students will need to learn best, and students should have the materials. There are better solutions to obtaining these materials, however, than having families spending time and money purchasing supplies individually.

School supply lists should be short, general, and inexpensive. Lists should only include supplies that the student is going to use individually, not supplies that will be put into a communal pool, or any non-instructional supplies. Schools should purchase communal supplies and non-instructional items.

Ideally, schools should purchase all of the supplies students need to learn. Several schools throughout the state provide all the supplies that students will need for the school year. By ordering in bulk, the same quality supplies can be obtained for a lower cost. Some schools request a modest fee to cover the supplies, but others cover the cost of supplies with school funds.

School supply lists are bad for kids. Consider how quickly the school supply list identifies the "haves" and the "have nots" in our schools. Even if the student was able to get one of the backpacks generously filled with school supplies by the community, it may not contain the "right" supplies for his/her classroom. When a student's family can't afford to purchase the requested supplies, he/she arrives on the first day of school without the variety of colored folders and Ticonderoga pencils and immediately feels like a '"have not."

This is not the way to start a school year.

A teacher should not spend his/her own money to purchase supplies for the classroom. Schools in Arkansas spend between $7,000 and $16,000 per student per year. This money is provided to the districts by taxpayer dollars to support public education. Districts should make providing the resources that students need, including Kleenex, a basic fiscal commitment.

In the meantime, when classroom doors open next week, be sensitive to students without a backpack full of listed supplies. They are still there to learn.


Sarah C. McKenzie is the executive director of the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas.

Editorial on 08/12/2017

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Jfish says... August 12, 2017 at 1:10 p.m.

Excellent article, to the best of my recollection, in the 70's we were told to show up with pencil, paper and lunch money, the school provided the rest. Poor kids signed up for the free lunch program and I am pretty sure that if they could not afford pencils and paper, the school provided them and nobody hardly noticed. Seems like the whole brand marketing thing has now filtered into the schools if they are telling kids the brands they have to buy.

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