Letters such as the one in Tuesday’s paper grousing about the high cost of school supplies are typical at this time of year. Parents presented with complex shopping lists in the weeks before or after school opens can get overwhelmed — not just by the cost, but by the task itself. They’re right that there’s got to be a better way, but school districts don’t want to hear about it because it means finding the money to pay for it.
But a school district that goes 99 percent of the way when it comes to providing a quality education for kids — giving them well-equipped classrooms, just the right books, top teachers, etc. — shouldn’t stint when it comes to the last 1 percent. Kids shouldn’t have to buy their own pencils or notebooks or glue sticks, or anything else they need to thrive in class, any more than they should have to buy their own books or calculators. If it’s required, if it’s part of educating the kids, why shouldn’t the schools be paying for it?
Not every parent can afford to shell out as much as $100 per pupil at the beginning of each school year for such items. And it’s not desirable, or fair, for those kids to go without; some of them are sufficiently handicapped as it is.
Nor is it right to ask other parents to pick up the slack, which sometimes happens when the stuff kids bring in from home gets thrown into a closet and pooled. Or for teachers to pay for what parents can’t or won’t — even when it comes to something like a box of tissues, which has nothing to do with education but is obviously essential for every classroom.
Sending parents out on treasure hunts to their local office supply palace, chain drugstore or big-box retailer is ridiculously inefficient. Multiply that wasteful scenario times the number of parents per district, and the offense is downright disgraceful. Schools can certainly buy the stuff — exactly what they want — for far less money, anyway, thanks to volume discounts. And think of all the wear and tear they’d save on parents, not to mention their cars.
The problem, of course, is money: Districts don’t have unlimited amounts of it. Raising taxes is an option, but not a very good one. There’s a tax cap in place, but even without one, voters would probably push back if asked to pay for something they haven’t had to pay for in recent history.
But in a lot of school districts, it has only been the last few years that deep budget cuts brought on by the tax cap have placed more of the burden for buying school supplies on parents. (In Schenectady last year, for example, the district cut a quarter of its budget — $250,000 — for this.)
In addition to providing billions of dollars in operating aid each year, the state partly reimburses school districts for a limited number of purchases. At some point, it arbitrarily drew the line on routine school supplies, and thus the districts have increasingly foisted the responsibility off on parents. Individually, a glue stick here or a notebook there does not seem like a lot to ask; but when the materials have to be purchased all at once, the burden on some families can be onerous.
Some schools have even resorted to soliciting corporate donations for the purchase, but it’s clearly a responsibility that they, and the state, should share. In for a dime, in for a dollar.