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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