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Sunday, October 4, 2015

Parents Spending Less on Back-to-School Season Despite Growing Lists of Supplies


From The New York Times

By Rachel Abrams
September 8, 2015

"... with steep funding cuts to education, parents and teachers are footing the bill, subsidizing public education for our children.” 


As a young student, Tom McMahon never had to bring scissors to school.

“I remember there was always a giant box of scissors,” said Mr. McMahon, now a 38-year-old father of three who teaches English in Mahopac, N.Y. “Now, we provide for scissors as parents and ask for scissors as teachers.”

Millions of American children return to school this week, many carrying more construction paper, paper towels and markers than ever before. With many school district budgets as tight as ever, schools keep relying more on parents to pay for what may have been basic classroom items during their childhood.

As the income inequality gap has widened, that has placed an extra burden on many families that are already struggling.

“Under normal circumstances, school districts would pay for these basic necessities,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in an email. “But with steep funding cuts to education, parents and teachers are footing the bill, basically subsidizing public education for our children.”

Students at Friends Seminary School in Manhattan bought school
planners on Tuesday. 
Credit: Joshua Bright/N.Y. Times

This year, the National Retail Federation expects parents to spend slightly less on apparel, electronics and school supplies than last year, which will not help major retailers who count far more on back-to-school sales. Retailers have worried that with the sales seasons more spread out over the summer, they can no longer rely on that traditional lift from back-to-school shopping.

The sagging sales season does not bode well for companies already struggling this year, and many have already projected a flat or disappointing holiday season, too.

In the last decade, the average amount families spent on school items grew 42 percent, according to the retail federation’s projections this summer. It estimated that families with children in grades K-12 would spend an average of $630 this year, about 6 percent less than in 2014.

To take advantage of the longer-term trend in spending on school supplies, major retailers have become primary guides for required items, and sometimes for the not-so-essential items, too.

Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer by sales, has posted more than 100,000 school supply lists from around the country on its website, up from 83,000 about the same time last year, according to a spokesman, John Forrest Ales. This year, Target created “School List Assist,” a new section of its website that displays the most commonly required K-8 supplies.

And a host of companies, like School-Pak in Jackson, Wis., prepackage supply kits that can then be shipped directly to schools or parents around the country.

Requirements vary widely by school and grade level. When Gene Schulist and his wife, Terri, started School-Pak in 1991, parents of a typical middle schooler may have spent about $35 to $40, he said. Now, they see lists as high as $150.

Mr. Schulist said these lists had grown “horribly” long, and for years parents have been asked to supply items like tissues and copy paper, as well as many multiples of the same items, like pencils and dry erase markers.

Even the purchase of items like construction paper, once a school staple, can fall on parents.

“That was always supplied by the school,” said Mr. McMahon, the teacher in Mahopac. “Now every kid comes in with a ream of construction paper.”

Not every family can afford to equip their children with a batch of new items each year. Of the more than one million K-12 students enrolled in New York City public schools last year, 74% came from “economically disadvantaged” households, meaning that they qualified for free or reduced-price lunches and other assistance programs, according to data from the education department.

About 84,000 homeless students attended school in New York City during the 2013 school year, up 25 percent since 2010, according to the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness. A majority of those students do not live in shelters, which means they often miss the benefits of backpack drives and other fund-raisers aimed at low-income families, said Linda Bazerjian, a spokeswoman for the group.

“These other kids sometimes fall off the radar, they’re kind of the hidden homeless, and so they’re not necessarily partaking in a lot of the resources,” Ms. Bazerjian said.

The gap between rich and poor, private school and public school, can be evident in lists for school supplies, and who comes prepared. Mr. Schulist says that one of his school lists requires students to bring 100 pencils, which helps compensate for children whose families can afford no pencils at all.

“I thought maybe they’d be building a little log house for Lincoln’s Birthday,” Mr. Schulist said.

The burden can also fall on teachers. Yaneev Bentov, a 25-year-old instructor at the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls, a public charter school, emerged from the Staples store in Union Square on Monday with $100 worth of pens, markers and other products for his classroom.

“Everything that’s in my bag right now are things I’ve opted to get,” Mr. Bentov said. “I’ve never found my main office or staff to be particularly generous with supplies.”

Inside, shelves were running low on wet wipes, an item that parents say they have grown weary of buying year after year, along with other cleaning supplies like tissues, paper towels and hand sanitizer.

One college-aged woman flipping through notebooks could be heard asking her parents for more money over the phone, an experience that was not unique that day.

“We were just inside with her friend and her sister, who were calling her parents because the list was so expensive,” said Arikha Moses, who emerged from the store with her daughter, Alta McQuillen, who was about to start sixth grade at a private school in Manhattan.

Ms. Moses recalled spending extra money on cleaning supplies when her daughter attended public school in the past.

“We didn’t have to do it when I was young,” she said. “They say they’re chronically underfunded, so what are you going to do?”

Thirty-one percent of school districts in New York have less state aid than they did in the 2009-10 school year, according to Carl Korn, a spokesman for the New York State United Teachers union.

At the private Friends Seminary school on East 16th Street, the roughly $40,000 yearly tuition pays for individual iPad access for nearly every K-12 student, which school officials say helps cut down on some of the physical items students need.

Jeff Bloch said his 11-year-old daughter Julia typically received more items from Friends Seminary than his 9-year-old son, who attends a special needs school on Roosevelt Island.

“They want Kleenex, they want paper towels, they want a lot of stuff that her private school supplies,” Mr. Bloch said.

Mr. McMahon, the teacher from Mahopac, said that, as a parent, he’d rather chip in extra each year than see schools cut back even more.

“I would rather our school worry about saving programs and services than buying tissues,” he said. “It doesn’t make me happy, but it’s worth it.”

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