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Parents pick up more of the tab for public schools

August 20, 2013

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Shopping for school supplies is no longer just about picking up some pencils and a few notebooks. Julie Langley is the mother of a 7th grader in West Des Moines, Iowa. She says as her daughter grows, so does the number of things she’s asked to bring to school every year.

“A CD-ROM, a flash drive,” she says. “The only thing we don’t need to buy is stuff for P.E.”

As schools face budget cuts, schools are asking more of parents like Langley — printer paper, dry-erase markers, and cleaning supplies. A survey by the National School Supply and Equipment Association found that more than a third of teachers have  asked parents to help stock the classroom when school budgets fall short. The shopping list keeps getting longer, says NSSEA spokeswoman Adrienne Dayton.

“Now the lists appear to be 30 items, sometimes totaling $50 worth of materials that really they’re asked to bring right from the beginning, if they can afford it,” Dayton says.

Some parents are being asked to do even more. Dan Lazar is the principal at Greenfield Elementary in Philadelphia. The school is facing a $175,000 shortfall.  SoLazar is asking parents to pony up more than $600 per student this year.

“This is something I never want to have to do again,” Lazar says. “I don’t think I would have agreed to do it if the situation wasn’t so dire.”

The money will be used to help pay for everything from office paper to salaries for classroom assistants. Lazar says other Philadelphia schools are also asking parents for big contributions.

And the city is not alone. The same is true in New York City, where Lazar says parent-teacher groups often ask for hundreds of dollars per child.

“My concern in all of this — and has been from the start — is those schools…where the parents aren’t able to give,” Lazar says. “And that scares me and it saddens me, because those are our neediest kids.”

Joanna Crane organizes a school supply drive for needy families at the Red Rock Area Community Action Program south of Des Moines. She says the bumped-up supply lists are starting in preschool now.

“Paper plates, and cups, and Clorox wipes and sanitizer,” Crane says.

Crane says it’s just too much for some families — like Christina Dale’s. The 29-year-old mother of three recently came in to the center to pick up free backpacks, pencils, and notebooks. Dale works full-time, but she says her children’s back-to-school needs can add up to hundreds of dollars she doesn’t have.

“Once you factor in the new school clothes, new shoes, the fact that they have to have a separate pair of shoes just for gym, and regular shoes to wear — it gets very expensive,” Dale says.

And that’s before you even get in the school door. Then, there may be a whole new round of expenses.

Dan Domenech is the executive director of the school superintendents’ association AASA. He says even though the economy is improving, schools haven’t caught up.

“There may be fees to help defray the cost of uniforms; there may be fees…for additional courses that may be offered after the school day,” Domenech says. “They’re all over the place.”

In California and Michigan, parents have fought back with lawsuits in an effort to make public education truly free. But there’s nothing stopping schools from asking parents for contributions.

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