Make public school affordable for public

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Foraging for school supplies is not for the easily flustered. Like many parents this time of year, I trek from retailer to retailer, securing the items on my son's school supply list. The lesson learned early in this annual scavenger hunt: Public education is scarcely free.

American families are projected to spend an average of $527 this year on back-to-school shopping, according to the latest National Retail Federation survey. While most spending will be for clothes and electronics, some $86 will go toward school supplies, up from $73 just two years ago.

Back when today's parents were in elementary school, it was presumed students would provide only a few inexpensive products for their own personal use, such as spiral notebooks and pencils. Nowadays, parents and teachers alike are expected – often required – to stock classrooms with a wide-range of office and household goods.

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Found on current supply lists from across the country:

In addition to a $20 book fee per child, third-graders at one Chicago elementary school are required to bring 25 items on the first day of school, including grading pens, tissues, hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes, and paper towels. Another 10 items, including ink cartridges and transparencies, are listed as optional.

Among the 16 items first-graders in one Memphis, Tenn., school are expected to acquire: a ream of copy paper, a disposable camera, tissues, plastic zip bags, envelopes, dry-erase markers, and red-ink pens.

First-graders in Milton, Fla., are asked, though not required, to each bring five boxes of crayons, four bottles of white glue, six packages of No. 2 pencils, and 16 other assorted office supplies.

The general supply list for fifth-graders in Houston lists 22 required items including a blue, hard-lead grading pencil. A note indicates specific teachers may ask for additional supplies.

When students tote a backpack full of office supplies to school, something is bound to be out of kilter. The question that must be addressed is not if such supplies are needed in classrooms – they are – but rather who should provide them in the public school setting: taxpayers, teachers, parents, or private donors?

Underlying the American elementary and secondary school system is the belief that education is a public good – meaning all citizens benefit from a well-educated populace. It is the very philosophical rationale for why public schools are tax-supported.

Yet, educating citizens requires more than simply providing buildings with teachers. It means furnishing lots of little things, too, such as the paper on which tests are copied and the pens that then are used to grade them. Such supplies would be readily invested in at any other fully functional workplace in America.

Unfortunately, a well-stocked workplace is far from reality for teachers. According to a recent survey by the National School Supply and Equipment Association, teachers, on average, expect to spend about $1,802 out of their own pockets for work-related materials with $826 of it going toward classroom supplies.

Faced with reaching deeper into their own wallets, teachers have little choice then but to ask for help. How much of that aid comes from school fundraisers, business donations, or parents via user fees and supply lists depends largely upon the attitudes, generosity, and affluence of the community. It is an economic reality that wealthier districts have deeper pockets.

One possible solution: Increase tax-funded allocations for classrooms. Such an increase would not necessitate a tax increase if existing funds were reallocated.

As a national average, only some 61 percent of education funds are earmarked for in-classroom expenses, such as teacher salaries and classroom supplies, according to data supplied by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The remainder goes toward administration and operating expenses, such as transportation and maintenance.

If the proportion of spending going toward in-classroom expenses were to be raised to the 65 percent level – an increase of just 3.7 cents per dollar – supplies could be nearly doubled, according to the national advocacy group First Class Education.

But then, if school supply budgets were raised, parents like me would miss out on our annual refresher math lesson: It is more efficient for many people to drive around town to gather a few items than a single, large entity with economies-of-scale buying power. At least, that's what it teaches me.

Beth Waldron is a public policy analyst and writer in Chapel Hill, N.C.

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