This year the supply list for an elementary school student costs about $650, up from an inflation-adjusted $375 in 2006. A middle-school student might run $1,000; up from $525. And sending a fully equipped high-schooler off to class can cost nearly $1,500 — compared to $800 just 10 years ago.
All together that’s an average of about $1,000 — nearly the same as the average U.S. monthly mortgage payment — according to the annual Huntington Bank’s Backpack Index.
Strapped and stressed parents are pushing back.
“Just got back from the Walmarts [sic] and spent $350 per child on school supplies,” said author Susannah B. Lewis in a Facebook video. “My daughter is 11. She needs two 4-inch binders…You ever seen a 4-inch binder? …Holds 60,000 sheets of paper. Now what does an 11-year-old need with something that holds 60,000 sheets? All she’s going to have is 45 sheets of diagramming sentences in there.”
Her sardonic clip struck a chord, racking up more than 5 million views. Though we might have fond memories of a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper or a set of Pee Chee folders or those funny angled pencil toppers, parents and schools are struggling to cover material costs for a child’s education.
For families with more than one child, the bills of course multiply. According to a recent survey conducted for the financial literacy nonprofit Junior Achievement, 60 percent of U.S. parents struggle to pay for their school supplies.
Beyond the sticker shock, most galling for parents seems to be requests for basic supplies that seem like they should be provided by the school, like tissues, paper towels, glue sticks, or scissors.
Others are exasperated by seemingly overly specific requests for specific items, hitting multiple stores only to find that the exact kind and color of sticky pads are all sold out. Or having to share their supplies with other families who didn’t bring the required amount.
And what does it matter if the pencils are Ticonderogas?
Teachers say they request specific brands to make sure that kids don’t get stuck with frustrating brands that don’t work as well, which can undermine classroom time. And setting the same brand for everyone helps tamp down on socioeconomic differences between pupils, and reduce bullying.
Meanwhile, the average teacher spends $600 of his or her own cash on school supplies, according to a recent annual survey by the AdoptAClassroom.org non-profit. So if you’re not buying that box of Kleenex, your child’s teacher is the one reaching into her pocket for it. Most states are now providing less support per student for elementary and secondary schools than before the recession, and some are still cutting, according to a 2016 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report.