Stop the mad­ness

School sup­ply lists go over­board

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - SARAH C. MCKEN­ZIE Sarah C. McKen­zie is the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Of­fice for Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy at the Univer­sity of Arkansas.

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.

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