Some Seattle-area school districts are cutting back on the number of school supplies they’re asking parents to buy, and a few have eliminated the lists altogether.
In Mary Levesque’s family, back-to-school shopping is usually more expensive than Christmas shopping. The cost of pencils, crayons and binders all add up, especially with four children in third through 10th grade.
Basic supplies alone cost at least $50 per child, and combined with backpacks and clothes, the total comes out to hundreds of dollars spent every September for the Arlington family.
“It’s always a big chunk of money,” she said.
This fall, though, she and her family won’t have to worry about a portion of those expenses. Last spring, Arlington Public Schools decided to stop asking parents to buy most school supplies.
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District leaders had noticed that the lists of items schools ask parents to buy had gotten longer and longer, even as the number of families in need was going up, said spokeswoman Andrea Conley.
So the district found $67,000 in its budget to cover those costs instead.
For years, school-supply lists in many schools and districts have grown more expensive. To help families who can’t afford to purchase all that, districts have organized supply drives, allowing some families to get supplies for free.
But recently, a number of districts have streamlined the supply-list process, shortened the number of items teachers can request, or done away with lists entirely.
Northshore, for example, created guidelines for what schools can’t and can’t ask parents to provide. Mukilteo shortened the lists it gives to elementary-school parents to a maximum of seven items. Evergreen, in Vancouver, Wash., joined Arlington in eliminating the lists altogether.
“If we can take that expense off families, maybe that helps some of them keep their house, or pay their electric bill, whatever they can do with that money to keep the kids in an environment that is stable,” said Evergreen Superintendent John Deeder.
Nationally, the average amount of money parents will spend on school supplies for one elementary student this year is about $196, according to Huntington Bank, an Ohio company that annually assesses the costs of supplies and fees. The cost for middle school students is $327, and high school is $374.
Those numbers are slightly lower than the year before, but much higher than five or ten years ago. Steve McCullough, chief operating officer of the national office of Communities in Schools, attributes that to families being able to shop around more than before, rather than the need or prices going down.
And those numbers don’t count what teachers end up buying. The Education Market Association, a trade organization for educational products, said teachers on average spend about $500 of their own money each year for supplies for their classrooms.
Supply lists vary widely from district to district, and school to school. At Coe Elementary in Seattle, for example, the first-grade list includes a $50 check, Ticonderoga pencils and classic-color Crayola markers. The fifth-grade list for Rainier View Elementary in Federal Way has headphones, a 2 GB jump drive and two dozen No. 2 pencils — but not Dollar Store pencils.
Before the decision in Arlington, the PTA at Levesque’s elementary school tried to help parents by coordinating with a school supply company so parents could order in bulk and pay less. Still, she said, many parents would ask for some sort of financial assistance.
About a third of the district’s 5,550 students qualify for federal free- or reduced-price lunches, a 40 percent increase in the past eight years. Across the state, 44 percent of the state’s 1.08 million students qualify, an 18 percent increase from eight years ago.
The district had wanted to provide more supplies for a few years, said spokeswoman Conley, but didn’t think it could afford it until this year.
In the Evergreen School District, the decision to eliminate supply lists — and most student fees — also came out of discussions about how the district could help students living in poverty, said Deeder, the superintendent. The district will use its levy dollars to purchase classroom sets of supplies this year, paying for all elementary sets and most in middle and high schools.
In Northshore, Lake Stevens and Mukilteo, school districts have shortened the number of items they ask parents to buy.
The Mukilteo School District, for example, created one list for each grade level, which must be used in all 12 elementary schools. Each of the lists has a maximum of seven items, which cost a total of about $30.
Even with districts that aren’t making changes, the efforts to provide supplies for low-income families continues.
In Everett, for example, the district’s foundation will deliver 1,850 backpacks filled with supplies to students before school starts. The requests for backpacks increased by 150 this year, said Everett Public Schools Foundation development manager Kirsten Hansen. At some schools, the line snakes around the building on “come get your backpack day.”
One father started crying when he received backpacks for his four children, Hansen said.
“There’s just always a need,” she said.