by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
This is the first of a three-part series examining the issue of school supplies. Part 2 will address teacher expenditures on classroom items. Part 3 will assess state expenditures for supplies and books.
Families are significant contributors to the school supply stockpile in most schools. According to the 2018 National Retail Federation (NRF) survey, families with elementary, middle, and high school children will spend a total of $27.5 billion or an average of $685 per household to ready their kiddos for the new school year. Well over half of their spending will be for clothing and shoes. The remainder will be spent on electronics and supplies.
The NRF estimates that the average parent will spend $122.13 on supplies, including notebooks, pencils, Disney Frozen Deluxe 3D Embossed 16″ School Bag backpacks, and the Thermos Novelty Lunch Kit, Star Wars R2D2 with Lights and Sound lunchboxes. A Deloitte survey confirmed the NRF’s $122 estimate and further found that 98 percent of respondents planned to purchase school supplies this year.
The annual Huntington Backpack Index is another approach to estimating back-to-school expenditures. Huntington Bank, in cooperation with Communities in Schools, obtains classroom supply lists from elementary, middle, and high schools in the eight, mostly Rust Belt, states served by the bank. Huntington economists create a representative list of supplies and assign a cost to each item by “selecting moderately priced items at national online retailers.” They estimate that the cost of back-to-school supplies is nearly $637 per elementary school child, although it is important to note that the total also includes the cost of a backpack (naturally), gym uniform, music instrument rental, field trips, and additional school fees. Estimates for middle and high school students were $941 and $1,354, respectively.
Back-to-school shopping became an annual ritual for American families and big business for retailers starting in the 1960s. School supply lists made it an even bigger business by asking parents to buy items they otherwise would not purchase for their children. Once retailers recognized that supply lists would encourage families to spend more, they began to provide them in the store and eventually online. Companies like EduKits, Sprout School Supplies, and 1st Day School Supplies offer custom school supply kits based on lists published by schools. The kits are purchased online and delivered directly to the school.
The widespread dissemination of school supply lists is a relatively new phenomenon. School districts began distributing supply lists in the late 1980s. Initially, schools would mail supply lists with the students’ year-end report card and post them in their administrative and district offices for review. In some cases, teachers would hand out lists to families at open house events or distribute them to students at the start of the school year. A 1991 article in NEA Today even suggested that teachers ask parents to provide a self-addressed stamped envelope so that they may mail supply lists to them.
As parents increasingly used the lists to dictate back-to-school shopping, schools began to expand their lists beyond paper, pencils, and Trapper Keepers. In 1994, the Orlando Sentinel reported that school supply lists for some Orange County, Florida schools included items such as soap and towels. Regardless of whether the requests for toiletries and cleaning supplies were based on critical shortages of those products, supply lists began to serve a new, largely rhetorical, role as indicators of the health of school district budgets. Many reasoned that if teachers and administrators had to ask students’ parents to buy classroom and bathroom essentials, then it must mean that schools do not have the money to pay for them. Concurrently, savvy school officials observed that if most parents complied with requests to purchase supplies on their schools’ behalf, then they could reduce certain line items in school and district budgets accordingly.
School supply lists also started to reflect educational fads, and teachers began to make unconventional requests. In “Silly school supplies a sign of innovation” from 1997, St. Petersburg Times reporter Kent Fischer noted requests for unusual items, such as dead batteries and garlic presses. According to Fischer,
Students learn in different ways. Some students learn best by listening, while others learn by doing. Many learn best when they touch and feel what they’re being taught. Writing in the shaving cream lets them ‘touch’ the words and letters. Teachers also use sandpaper and dry macaroni to conduct similar lessons.
The article reflects the popularity of “multiple intelligences theory,” which remained popular throughout the 1990s despite a lack of empirical support for Harvard professor Howard Gardner’s wildly popular concept. In the end, “silly school supplies” were short on innovation and long on silly. Today, few supply lists include unusual items.
Another school supply controversy is the request for name brand items. Starting in the late 1990s, teachers started asking parents to spend additional money to buy name brand goods, insisting the difference in quality between the name brand and the store brand mattered. Soon, school supply lists began to specify Crayola crayons, Dixon Ticonderoga pencils, and Fiskars scissors. As the list expanded to include nontraditional supplies, teachers requested Ziploc bags, Kleenex tissues, Mr. Clean Magic Erasers, and Purell hand sanitizer. One important exception is that some schools ask for Clorox or Lysol disinfectant wipes because they are compliant with OSHA Bloodborne Pathogens standards.
In debates about whether schools have sufficient supplies and materials for the school year, the contributions of parents are too often overlooked. But families, including mine, spend hundreds of dollars every year to provide schools with the supplies and materials that teachers and administrators request. And, with a few exceptions, families are more than happy to help, so long as the list of items is reasonable and focused on student learning.