Back to School: Schools Pass the Hat...And Parents Feel the Crunch

Back to School
Back to School

On the first day of school last year, the courtyard of my daughter's elementary school looked like the aftermath of a natural disaster. Hundreds of parents and children milled around, clutching trash bags full of supplies. My wife and I carried our own sacks, filled with more than $250 worth of markers, grading pens, Ziploc bags and copier paper. Over the past few days, we had rushed from store to store, gathering a huge pile of supplies, many of which my daughter would never touch.

I was no stranger to the yearly quest for school supplies: When I was a kid, every August was marked by a trip to the store for folders and pencils, perhaps with a few boxes of tissues thrown in. Years later, when I bought school supplies for my youngest sister, the list had broadened to include a few administrative items, but it was still modest, largely consisting of products that my sister would directly use.

A Boon for Businesses...A Burden for Families

For my daughter, though, the pile of office products was so large that neither my wife nor I could carry it alone, and the school didn't bother to disguise the fact that many of the items were destined for the front office. What's more, this phenomenon wasn't limited to my daughter's school. According to a recent study, parents spent more than $68 billion on school supplies in 2011. In context, it's not surprising that Staples office supply stores have long referred to the back-to-school season as "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year."

But while the August rush may be great for retailers, it's not a wonderful deal for parents. "The yearly supply lists are growing," says Betsy Landers, President of the National PTA. "And they're becoming a greater burden on families."

A big part of the problem is that parents are increasingly being called upon to make up for cuts in educational funding. "In the economic squeeze of the last few years, education has always been one of the first things cut," Landers points out. "There are new cuts every single year, and they're making schools do more with less. Ultimately, federal and state budgets are being balanced on the backs of parents and students."

Location is Everything

To a great extent, the impact of education cuts -- and the amount of money that individual families have to pay -- depends on locality. "Federal cuts force the states to pick up the slack, and state cuts force local municipalities to pick up the slack," Landers points out. In wealthier school districts, she explains, local taxes cover a lot of the income shortfall, but poorer districts often have to fill the budget gap by cutting programs or asking parents to buy office supplies.

In other words, depending upon the state or locality, the amount of money spent on each student can vary wildly -- as can the source of that money. In the 2009 school year, for example, Alaska, Wyoming, New York and New Jersey led the pack, spending over $16,000 per pupil. On the other end of the spectrum, Idaho, Utah, Arizona and Oklahoma spent less than half that.

But total spending only tells half the story. In Mississippi, for example, federal funding accounted for 15.6% of education expenses, and localities picked up 31% of the tab. Meanwhile, in New Jersey, one of the top education spenders, only 4.1% of educational funding came from the federal government; individual localities picked up more than 50% of the tab for their schools.

A Steady Stream of Fundraisers

Schools' appeals to parents take many forms. In addition to the yearly back to school bonanza, many schools have become reliant on almost constant fundraising. "PTAs are fundraising in what we think are record amounts," Landers notes. "They are trying to make up the difference, and support the educational experience."

The trouble, Landers argues, is that the cycle of supply lists and fundraisers can distract from the central problem. By underwriting the costs of underfunded schools, she claims, fundraising can make it seem like cuts to education don't have any consequences. "It can give a free pass to our elected officials who are responsible for funding the educational system," she says.

For parents, rising school costs and stagnating incomes are forcing some difficult decisions. According to a recent survey by HatchedIt, an online planning site, many parents are cutting corners on their children's expenses. While school supplies are somewhat non-negotiable, the site found that 27% of parents were relying heavily on generic brands to cut costs. Meanwhile, many planned to save in other areas: 45% said that they were trimming their clothing budget to make ends meet.

This year, my wife and I enrolled in Amazon prime, which gave us free shipping -- and made the online supplier a good bet for most of my daughter's supplies. All told, the site saved us over $100 -- a small pile of money that's already earmarked for candles, chocolate, and all the other PTA fundraisers that we are sure to see before Christmas hits.

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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