Communal vs. individual school supplies

Update:  FDR quote from the FDR monument in Washington, DC (Thanks Leah!).  I found it as the last slide on Peter Diamond’s history of Social Security changes.

It seems like across much of the US, school supplies for elementary school have moved from being individual (you know, where I was the only kid whose mom followed instructions and bought the 12 pack of crayons instead of the 48 pack, and a couple of kids even got the 96 pack that had gold and silver and a built-in-sharpener) to communal, where the school list will, for example, request two 24 packs of crayons, crayola-only, to be collected and distributed across the classroom.   Back in my day only the Kleenex was communal.

This has caused some complaining across the personal finance blogosphere.  There’s a reluctance to subsidize children whose parents can’t or won’t buy school supplies for their own children.

I disagree with that sentiment.  I like having communal supplies because it makes it easier for kids who can’t afford school supplies. I do wish that we could what we did when we were living in a blue state and give money to the PTA to buy in bulk instead of buying new supplies individually. And I wish our current state was like the blue state we were in before and solicited donations so the school could own the calculators instead of the kids. I feel really bad for the kids whose parents can’t afford to buy calculators or rent instruments or go on field trips or get school supplies. (The district does have a pantry that accepts donations for kids who get free and reduced lunch, but it’s mostly clothing and hygiene supplies.)

It seems so much more humane to do it communally instead of individually.  Of course, it’s still not as humane as everyone’s tax money going to support future generations of Americans, but it’s much better than the idea that kids should be penalized for their parents being poor. Or that kids should have to rely on religious charity because people aren’t willing to give a little extra unless the “worthy poor” end up being indebted to a Christian organization for something that should be a right for all Americans.

Because funding to schools keeps getting cut in the interest of lower taxes, more and more of what used to be funded by schools is now funded by parents.  We’ve had to pay for orchestra music/instrument/uniforms and every field-trip and individual science experiments and many more things on top of more historically standard calls for empty toilet paper tubes and pot-luck dishes.  We’ve been doing directed donations for other kids each time we get one of these requests for our own kid, and there have been a lot of them, but we’ve generally had to take the initiative to ask about it ourselves (only the science teacher added donations for other kids to requests). And I just feel really bad for kids on the other end whose parents can’t or won’t provide for them who have to ask the teachers what to do when they don’t have the money. I remember just not going on field trips to ball games or amusement parks as a kid– not wanting my parents to have to worry about the money and not wanting to ask for charity (my parents would have died of embarrassment)– and that would be something like once every three years since all the local educational trips were covered. There’s so much less covered here.

In contrast, the year we were living in a blue state they flat out asked for a (recommended) largish donation at the beginning of the year from people who could afford it and some smaller amount for school supplies for people who didn’t want to shop on their own and that was it– and that money covered supplies, field trips, computers, calculators, and the arts program. There were also a limited number of free musical instruments that the school owned that anyone could rent if they jumped through a few hurdles, or the richer people could pay to rent through local music stores without jumping through hurdles. Kids didn’t have to feel bad for not having stuff because it was supplied for everyone.

Obviously that’s not possible in an impoverished district.  For those, federal or state funding is really needed to fill in those gaps.  But most of the commenters on these blog posts who are complaining about having to subsidize other people’s kids can afford to pick up more supplies than their individual kid will use at the back-to-school sale, and if they can’t, then someone else can pick one up on their child’s behalf.  And they’re not complaining about the expense so much as the unfairness of having to help a child that isn’t their own (though they don’t put it in those words… I think/hope if they did they might check themselves and not share that sentiment).  It sucks that parents have to buy basic supplies when children are America’s future taxpayers and we should all be subsidizing education through taxes, but failing that, this is one area where I don’t at all mind secular charity from those who can afford it.  Especially if it means some kid doesn’t have to constantly be reminded that they don’t have what everyone else has.  And you better believe we’ll be giving additional unrequested directed donations to our children’s schools this year, especially with DC1 in a 56% poverty elementary school.

And, as a reminder, Donorschoose is a fantastic charity that helps out kids and teachers in districts where having some parents buy a second set of school supplies isn’t possible or isn’t enough.

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24 Responses to “Communal vs. individual school supplies”

  1. Omdg Says:

    Maybe they imagine that the parents who don’t buy the school supplies “won’t” rather than “can’t.” Them they forget that even if that is true there’s a child on the receiving end of that behavior.

    And then of course there is racism.

    Sorry, just trying to explain the behavior. I find it perplexing too.

  2. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Speaking of school supplies… why is it that some teachers feel like instead of putting their class supplies on the supply list, they have to wait until school starts to request something completely different than what was on the list. (In this case: supply list requested a 70 page notebook, email says, no, not 70 pages, 100 pages.) Good luck getting anything at Target or Walmart with all the college kids setting up their apartments. Also: this request is on Monday which means we can’t even pick one up during our regular grocery shopping.

    • Leah Says:

      RE: the supply list issues, part of it is that teachers might not be consulted, especially as students get to older grades. I had absolutely no say at my last high school for the list. I needed kids to have a simple, spiral bound notebook for the science notebook we ended up doing. I bought a bunch and just asked kids to bring me a quarter because I wasn’t able to put it on a list ahead of time. You might see this even more as DC1 goes up in age.

      I have a school store now, so we just request that they stock our needed items, and we can tell the kids to go there and get it. One perk of boarding school.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Why have school supplies on the list for electives to begin with?

        I will note that on the school supply list, this particular item was highlighted as if someone wanted it to be changed but never got around to actually making the change before posting the list. Same thing with another elective, but with the other elective we got an email before the college kids got back in town so it was easy to fix!

  3. Leah Says:

    That’s an FDR quote! Specifically, it’s a quote from the FDR monument in Washington, DC. The monument was built with South Dakota granite (apparently) — a really distinctive stone and different from the marble that most of the presidential monuments were built with. I recognized it instantly. Here’s a link to the page with all his quotes: https://www.nps.gov/frde/learn/photosmultimedia/quotations.htm

    It still boggles me how anti-education some people are and thus seek to starve the education system of funds. Hasn’t research shown that even modest increases in funding are helpful in ultimate outcomes? At a minimum, the horrible infrastructure in low SES schools is appalling. But I suppose we have infrastructure problems all around . . .

  4. Shannon Says:

    I was also one of the kids who got the 24 crayon box when everyone else got 48 or 96. To this day, I still remember my crayon envy. It wasn’t because my parents couldn’t afford it – they were just teachers, so they stuck to the list to support other teachers. Now, with my own kids, I allow them to scale up on one or two things, so they don’t feel left out. But I feel so bad for the kids whose parents legitimately cannot afford it. We ask the PTO at the beginning of the year – what’s your fundraising goal per kid this year? We then write the PTO a check that is usually 1.5-2 times that amount – so we can throw away the stupid fundraiser flyers. As a School Committee member, I would LOVE to be able to buy everything each class needs. But our tax rate is among the lowest in the state, so we’re trying desperately to find ways to fund things like reading and match specialists – supplies are not going to happen any time soon.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      So much fundraising. We also have a ton of small (and unexpected) fees throughout the year for things like owl pellets and field trips. It will be interesting to see what the elementary school does. We’re thinking of making a directed donation to DC2’s classroom, but I suspect that the dual language program is more heavily resourced than the rest of the school.

  5. Anne M Says:

    My main complaint with group supplies is the WASTE of having to buy new every year, even though my child came home with some barely used items. Adding the cost of supplies needed to the registration fee each year (which, in our district, is discounted/waived according to income level) would probably be a good thing, because the school could buy by the case. Volunteers could check to see what is actually needed each year. For example, I purchased several sets of watercolors in the early elementary years for my child. If they were part of a class set, subsequent years could get by with purchasing only the used-up colors (I have only found the separate color pans in dozens).
    These days, I only need to buy a few items each year. The colored pencils, for example, no longer need to be a particular name brand which is only sold in sets. Last year, I bought one or two open-stock colors from a different brand to replace the worn-out colors. This year I didn’t need to buy any at all.
    Not specifically school supplies, but I’d like to note that one of the things my school district has done that is helpful is to have gone to a totally pre-paid lunch system for everyone (the students have an account number). Not only does it mean less money counting for the school, but no one need know where the money in your account came from, as opposed to previously, when it was obvious who had vouchers for lunch.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      When we’ve had communal supplies, nobody comes home with anything at the end of the year. (Which is nice for us because we really don’t need another set of 24 naked crayon stubs.) I assumed teachers just kept things that were in decent shape for when there aren’t enough the next year.

      We don’t have registration fees. I guess that would be another way to do it, so long as they were generous about waiving/subsidizing. (And there’s a worry about kids whose parents *won’t* rather than can’t, and won’t fill out those income forms. Or worries about ICE that cause some immigrants to be wary of providing income information.)

    • Rosa Says:

      Yeah, I like communal school supplies better than individual (AND it reduces waste – my kid hated coloring and only did it under duress, one of his friends got voted “most artistic” last year. One used up a lot more colored pencils than the other! It was great that they shared.)

      I too wish we could just donate money and let the teacher or school buy, though. At the Montessori school they colored so many maps, they were always out of blue pencils. I wanted to just go buy a box or case of blue pencils for the classroom and didn’t know where/how. But I’m sure the school could have done that, if they had centralized ordering instead of relying on parents to supply things.

      I love the prepaid lunch system, and they don’t turn kids away for having empty accounts here, either. The free breakfast is “need based” in that the school has it because so many kids are poor, but not on an individual basis, so any kid who shows up gets breakfast. The only downside is that there’s not enough funds for staff to handle actual food service, so it’s all prepackaged and not that good. But the upside (all the kids get breakfast somehow) outweighs any number of negatives.

      So basically what I’m saying is that I’m a public school communist and the “I only want to pay for my kid” people can go suck it. If your kids go to school, we’re all funding it, and the “I don’t even have kids why do I have to pay taxes for schools” folks can ALSO suck it, but the folks who take advantage of the free public schools and then complain that they’re subsidizing anyone else can suck it more.

      • chacha1 Says:

        Love the last paragraph here, Rosa. :-) I don’t have kids, and that makes me MORE worried about low-resource schools: I’m going to be depending on the productivity of strangers when I’m old. I don’t have anyone else looking out for me, so I’d better do my best to make sure those coming up are motivated to GAF instead of looking back and saying “you didn’t help me, why should I help you.”

        I don’t believe in karma, but NIMBYs and “only my kid” people are kidding themselves if they think quid pro quo isn’t a thing. They are quick to say “oh Mark Zuckerberg should give so much money to X” when they won’t buy a spare roll of toilet paper for someone else.

  6. Cloud Says:

    Our school does communal supplies and the PTO kicks in to cover field trips for kids whose parents can’t afford them. The only thing I have to take the initiative on to ask about is when the class mom does a Shutterfly memory book for the class… I always offer to pay for extras if there are some kids whose parents can’t afford the $20.

    My only complaint about the supplies list is that they don’t send it out early, so we get it on the first day of school. I always buy a few things for my kids so they get the back to school supply shopping experience… and then don’t worry if those notebooks and folders get re-purposed for non school things.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Getting the supply list day one sounds awful. Though I guess it may not be as bad in towns that aren’t college towns (where everyone age 5-25 is trying to get supplies at the same time).

  7. chacha1 Says:

    Thanks for the reminder about DonorsChoose. I have bookmarked it this time. :-)

  8. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    By the way, today would be a great day to call about protecting public school funding and student loan protections! https://5calls.org/issue/reccRyuJun7MkwTXJ
    My senators’ peeps weren’t answering the phones but their voicemail boxes were definitely not full– got to voicemail the first try.

  9. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    I’m with Rosa 100%. I remember learning to do without if you don’t have money because we grew up without, I remember not owning a single book until I was in junior high because we couldn’t afford it. I’m all about communal supplies and I will happily put in a little more to help out if we have the money.

    I do not understand people who act like education isn’t a priority and gripe about subsidizing the education of other people’s kids. You know what? YOU will have to age in a society where those kids are service providers, your road pavers, your military, your law enforcement, your medical professionals, and so on. Good luck with that.

  10. psycgirl Says:

    Maybe this is because I don’t have a kidlet and so I don’t really get this but the idea of those who have more bitching about covering supplies etc. for kids who can’t afford it seems really, really, really obnoxious.


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