Small Differences: Back to School Supplies

Goodness it has been a while since I wrote a “Small Differences” post!  I wonder if that is a sign that I am pretty well acclimatised and assimilated into everyday American life.

This morning my children all returned to school after the looooooong summer break.  We have had a lovely summer between our travel back to Britain, having guests, our History of Art project and having fun in our home environs.  However, the four boys and I have been together 24/7 for 10 weeks now.  As much as getting back into the routine will be a shock to the system, we all really need to get back into our own grooves.  My treat for my first child-free day in ages is to sit down with a hot cup of tea before running errands and doing the household chores.  Gosh, the lavishness.  As I waited for the kettle to boil, I thought about the way in which the preparations for the return to school differ on both sides of the Atlantic.  It involves a small but significant difference: school supply shopping.

In Scotland, the shopping preparation ahead of the new school year was clothes based. My kids would need outfitting in new uniforms, thankfully standard polo shirts and trousers that could be bought very affordably. The only items requiring much investment of thought and planning were the jumpers and the shoes – the former because they needed an embroidered logo so had to be ordered in advance and the latter because I had to buy them in time for school but not so soon that they were outgrown before they were required. Plus we lived 86 miles from the nearest big shops so the shopping trip was a bit of an expedition. But that was it. Just the uniform. Maybe a new backpack if the old one had been wrecked. Maybe some optional colored pencils in a pencil case.

Here in America, however, purchasing the supplies for the following year is a major endeavor and not too little an expense either.

Each year, the teachers issue a list of items that parents are expected – required – to supply. And it’s not a short list. Half a side of A4 is size 12 font for my Elementary aged kids and at least three quarters of a page for my Middle Schooler. With four kids to buy for, that’s a whole load of supplies. The items run from stationery – pencils, glue sticks, lined paper – to cleaning supplies – disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizing gel – to memory sticks and, this year, a chrome book for my oldest son, purchased through a school scheme.

What’s additionally annoying is that brand name items are requested – pretty much demanded. There’s no just doing a trolley dash around Walmart or Target and bunging in the cheapest items. No, no, no. Generic will not pass muster. For some items it makes sense: Crayola crayons lay down better pigment; anyone whose had to keep sharpening the same pencil because it’s lead constantly snaps appreciates the value of Ticinderoga pencils. But won’t store brand disinfectant wipes clean just as effectively as Clorox? Kids always leave lids off glue sticks so they dry out just as quickly if they are generic as they do if they are Elmer’s. But I submit and conform and fall in line as I don’t want my kids to be the one in the class handing in boxes of no brand tissues. Except my 7th grader can have reinforced cardboard folders with envelope pockets because the plastic ones are double the price. That’s my rebellion.

With four kids, the price of this stuff soon stacks up too. Last year I actually went to the bother of doing price comparisons. This year I decided that my time has a value too so no price comparisons and no visiting multiple shops. Instead I ordered the required box of goodies from the Elementary for the three younger kids. It might cost me a few dollars more but it saves me time, effort and not having to carry all that stuff to school on the first day.

The reason why I have to provide all of these items is the real bug bear though: schools are too underfunded to provide the necessary items from their own budgets. They, therefore, rely on parents to provide essential items of stationery. Ours is a good school district that’s funded better than many in the area but still I’m providing basic items like lined paper so my oldest can do written work and whiteboard markers for the teacher to actually write with.  If parents didn’t provide these items, likely the teachers would dip into their own salaries to purchase them. That’s something I did in my own teaching career but for items over and above the essentials. I would buy prizes for my students or extra little bits and bobs to make a wall display more visually appealing. At no point was I having to reach into my own purse for pens or pencils or paper for my students.

Chronic underfunding of education here, however, means that special, “treat” items come from fund raising – which is so near constant that I wish I could just hand over a lump some up front to not be perpetually hassled for money – and many essential items are donated by parents. And if it’s like this in our school district then materials must be thin on the ground in school districts working with very Spartan budgets, such as in Philly itself.

So it was a bit of a culture shock to be faced with shopping lists for school each year and I do feel hassled and peeved by it to an extent but I would rather the money be spent on teaching than on pencils. It’s just shocking to me that such decisions should even have to be made.

13 thoughts on “Small Differences: Back to School Supplies

  1. You’ve given me a bit of a wake-up call. Our primary school, in an affluent area on the outskirts of Cork, Ireland, is closer to the American model than the Scottish. We get that long list which includes all copies, writing materials and the flipping glue sticks. We contribute €70 towards photocopying and paper costs and the fundraising is endless. If I started on secondary school costs I would be here till Christmas. Our much lauded free education does not exist. Sorry, rant over!

    • Yikes! I guess that is probably going to spread all over Britain too. It’s not something I encountered in either my teaching career or in having my kids in school in Scotland but I can see it might start creeping in as belts get tightened.

      Ugh. The fundraising I could write a separate rant about. I volunteer my time in the school as well as digging in my pockets for this, that and the other every few weeks. However, some of the fundraising events are prohibitively expensive so we opt out of those entirely. I seriously wish I could write a cheque for each child I have at the beginning of the year that was like “hush money”: here’s a lump sum now do not dare pester me again.

      PS Don’t ever apologize for ranting in comments on my blog. I love a good rant myself and venting is therapeutic.

  2. I am sorry to read this! It seems that education is a globally undervalued commodity nowadays – except for the bit that churns out square children who fit into rigorously squared employment demarcations. How do the single parents, the out-of-work parents and the otherwise financially challenged parents get on? What happens if you can’t afford the generic let alone the named brands?
    When did education become about using the correct brand any way? Maybe you should home school permanently…….

    • To answer some of your questions, parents like me provide extra items so as to subsidise the kids whose parents cannot have that chunk of change come out of their income. That works in this school district where employment levels are high. I cannot imagine that ever works in areas with high levels of poverty. I know there are charities that kit out kids for going back to school. It is sad when something so critical – the education of future generations – is so undervalued by those who determine budgets.

  3. Wow, what a hassle!! We just about managed to get the shoes and essential uniform bits this year and that was a tight squeeze!! Supplies as well and branded at that, a bit of a nightmare. We did have to buy some supplies for our son – he starts secondary school – but the list was simple and cheap. This would be horrific with our son too, he is not so great at keeping track of his belongings at school, uniform bits go missing regularly, I don’t know where we’d start with stationery!!

  4. I completely missed this one.

    It’s that Great American Aversion to Taxes. We love the idea of social programs, but when we see the cost of them, we don’t want to shell out the money to a government body. We prefer to give the money directly to the agency that uses the funds. So, we buy the school supplies ourselves. We fundraise for our children’s schools. And those who have to resources to do these things get the benefits while those who don’t suffer.

    There is also the problem of infrastructure, especially in the Northeast. The buildings are getting older and more money is going into maintenance, ergo less on education. We are starting to get very small whiffs of Britainesque rhetoric here where the historic preservationists are wanting to keep old schoolhouses while the parents are wanting modern facilities and resources. Of course, no one wants the taxes to rise.

    I could rant about this all day, so I will stop now

    • Oh I could write a whole other rant about the state of the buildings. We have a very spiffy new High School in our district but the Middle School my oldest son attends is horrible and really needs razed and rebuilt. And the Elementary my younger three attend is struggling to combat the heat because the A/C system is completely inadequate.

      • I am not sure about how our taxes compare to other states, though I know we pay less than in NJ since we looked into living there. I am still pretty ill-informed when it comes to the American taxation system as it is structured so differently from the UK system. I do know that a few years ago, maybe five, the voters in our school district voted in favour of an increase in local taxes in order to fund the rebuilding of the High School. Presumably that is why they are disinclined to ask for another hike to fund the rebuilding of the Middle School.

Let's chat! Leave a comment and I will reply.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.