OurFuture.org: Is Back-to-School More Expensive This Year? Yes, and Here’s Why

Parents getting their children ready to go back to school this fall may be dismayed at the long and pricey school supply lists they’re getting from their local schools. They can rest assured their children’s teachers feel the pain, too.

In July, a story about an Oklahoma third-grade classroom teacher panhandling on the side of the road to pay for her students’ school supplies went viral. The teacher estimates that every year she spends about $2,000 of her own money, out of her $35,000 salary, to supply her classroom.

“All this stuff, it costs money,” she says.

Many other public school teachers share her predicament.

“Since 2013, I have had no textbooks—none—for my American history classes,” writes one North Carolina public school teacher in an opinion column for her local paper. Turning to charitable sources doesn’t come close to meeting the needs of her students, she explains. Telling students to get their information from the Internet is also not an option. “I have ten laptop computers that students cannot take home,” she writes.

The most recent survey asking teachers what they pay out of their own pockets for their students’ school supplies found teachers spend nearly $500 on average, and one in ten spends $1,000 or more.

This is not to say parents shouldn’t complain about getting hit up for the costs of school supplies.

The annually compiled Backpack Index, which calculates the average cost of school supplies and school fees, reports parents face steep costs during back-to-school season: $662 for elementary school children, $1,001 for middle school children, and $1,489 for high school students.

These costs go beyond money for expendables like markers, notebooks, and graphing paper, and include valuable learning opportunities such as field trips, art and music programs, and athletics.

Middle-school parents face average costs of $195 for athletics, $75 for field trips, and $42 for other school activity fees. In high school, the fees spike much higher to $375 for athletics, $285 for musical instrumentals, $80 to participate in band, and $60 in other school activity fees. High school fees may also include academic courses such as Advanced Placement classes, which more schools are emphasizing. The average fee for tests related to these courses is $92. The costs of materials to prepare for these tests and the SAT average more than $52.

And then there are the expenses that can’t be calculated in money, but require time and flexibility.

Decreased funding of school bus transportation—like the $100 million hit Ohio schools are taking—means parents have to spend more time in the car every morning and afternoon.

Schools that elect to save money by going to four-day schedules, as schools in at least twenty-one states do, put the onus on parents to contend with childcare on what would normally be a school day.

It’s no secret why teachers and parents are paying more of the costs of educating our nation’s children. It’s because governments have been spending less on kids.

The most recent calculations available find inflation-adjusted government funding for education has been dropping for years, declining $858 per student from what was spent in 2008-2009.

Despite this cold, hard reality, many politicians and office holders are calling for further cuts to education funding, including President Donald Trump, who wants to cut federal education spending by $9.2 billion.

Who benefits when we cut school funding?

Slashing education budgets at the federal, state, or local level doesn’t save money; it just shifts costs somewhere else.

There’s no bold new paradigm in which little kids don’t need tissues to blow their noses or crayons to draw their first stick figures. Nor is there some bright new technology that eliminates the need for students to experience music or athletics by actually playing an instrument or having real sports equipment.

Someone has to pay for these things, or kids go without.

Shifting the costs of educating kids from the general public, where there are vast economies of scale, to individuals, many of whom are already struggling financially, burdens those who most need support in order to flourish.

Sharing the costs of education across communities—and across states—can lower costs overall. You might bristle at the cost of paying six bucks for a pack of markers, but imagine how much lower the cost per pack would be if your kid’s school had the money to buy 500 of them.

Providing schools with the supplies students need is vital to successfully educating the nation’s future workers, leaders, artists, and citizens. Just ask the Oklahoma teacher who resorted to panhandling for her students.

“I want the proper tools to do my job well,” she said. “I wouldn’t ask somebody to build my house with a spoon.”

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Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is an Associate Fellow at Campaign for America's Future and owner of a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, NC, serving numerous nonprofits and progressive organizations and causes including Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, ASCD, National Geographic Society, PBS, and International Planned Parenthood Foundation. He has written...