Friday, August 11, 2006

Back-to-School Adventures

Do public schools get some sort of kickback from the big-name makers of school supplies?

Although our daughter isn't of school-going age yet, my wife and I have friends whose kids are in the public school system. They tell us that those pervasive "Back to School" supplies lists you see in the retail stores seem to go out of their way to recommend name-brand supplies.

Has something changed? Do public schools get some sort of "support" from the likes of Crayola and 3M and Mead? Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't remember it being that way when I was a kid, and neither does my wife. Where our Back-to-School lists might have shown items like "Box of crayons (24)" or "Box of #2 pencils (10)" you now see things like:

"Crayola SuperBright Crayons - 2 Giganto Boxes - 764 Colors"
"Fields-Piercem Soft Lead #2 Pencils w/Invis-Erase System - Pkg. of 20"
"EverSharp Dual Action Self-Honing Stainless Steel Scissors - Red Handle - Pkg. of 2"

Honestly, it all seems rather unnecessary to me. It's to the point that even my wife, Lisa, wanted to voice her experience and opinion on the topic. What follows are her thoughts:

*** *** ***

My best friend is a single mom of two boys who are 10 & 13 years old. Recently she and I went shopping, and we noticed the shopping lists were posted in the back to school section of the store. And so began our adventure . . .

Every year, she says, brings new frustrations. Personally, I donít remember it being this hard. We had a list in elementary school, but it was fairly simple and straight-forward. Not like today.

Back then, I enjoyed my new school supplies. I remember getting my first protractor; I believe it was in the 4th grade. Oh, the mystery behind it.

From what I've seen, it isnít fun anymore. I donít know if itís because Iím grown-up and MANY things arenít as fun as they used to be, or if it truly is more difficult than it used to be, and more difficult than it needs to be.

This is the first year in several that my friend hasnít had to buy several reams of copy paper for her boys to supply to their classes/school. I remember when I first found out that she had to buy reams of paper, I was shocked. Are our schools really in such bad shape that the kids have to supply their own paper for their worksheets?

BACK IN MY DAY . . . (I feel so old when I say that!) . . . I recall that, towards the end of elementary school, we had to bring a few boxes of facial tissue. The teacher put them in the supply closet, and whenever we used up one box, she got another out of the stash. My mom got the generic tissue. We schoolkids didnít suffer because it wasnít Puffs Plus. You had a snotty nose, you used what was available. It was certainly better than nothing (or a roll of scratchy public school toilet paper). But the boxes of generic facial tissue were the most I remember contributing to communal school supplies.

Not so for my best friend. Last year was crazy. For her son who was going into the 4th grade, she had to get something crazy like 8 boxes of crayons. EIGHT. Thinking back to MY DAY, I donít recall ever using up a SINGLE entire box of crayons in one school year. For me, eight boxes would have been enough for eight years of school.

My friend said that the teacher kept the crayons in a closet, and would get another box for each child as they needed it. Iím thinking my friend probably supplied someone elseís kid with seven boxes of crayons. But it gets better: The eight boxes were brand-specific. The list was not only for Crayola, but it specified NOT Rose Art. Huh?

Back-to-school sales are great, and you can get a box of 24-count Crayolas pretty cheap (twenty cents, or something like that). But the sales on Rose Art crayons are even better (I think Iíve seen them priced as low as eight cents per box).

Eight boxes at 20 cents means $1.60 spent. Eight boxes at 8 cents means 64 cents spent. Thatís almost a dollar difference. My friend could then use that dollar to help buy the boxes of brand-specific facial tissue on the list. No generic tissue like back in MY DAY. Only Kleenex brand is good enough for todayís school kids.

And then there are the difficult-to-find supplies. One item this year is a white gum eraser. Not regular art gum erasers (which are brown). We went to Super Wal-Mart, Target, AND OfficeMax and couldnít find a WHITE gum eraser. Same thing with the pocket accordion folder. The list specified how many pockets, and we could not find it. Everything out there has either too many or too few pockets. There was the composition notebook with a specific sheet count that we couldnít find. Iím sure there was more craziness on the list, but my mind hurts thinking about it.

And she gets to do this for two boys. On one income. Sheís never received any help from one father, and little more from the other (one grandmother will try to give her about $100 a month, but it isnít something she can depend on).

As our shopping trip/school supply adventure continued, I wondered what would happen if she didnít buy everything on the list. At least for the boy in middle school. I know that when we were that age, we kids dnít shop off a list in junior high / middle school. Personally, I just took a clipboard with some paper and a writing instrument to my first day. I made a list of things teachers said weíd need, and THEN we got my supplies. I donít recall ANYTHING on my lists being brand specific.

Today I saw a Big Lots commercial — the mom in it said she got a backpack and filled it with supplies for $20. But I noticed the ď30 markers for $1Ē she was so excited about were generic.

Tsk tsk.

What horrible things would happen if my friend's boys showed up with (GASP) Rose Art crayons? Or Great Value tissue paper? I shudder to think.

I wonder if back-to-school time is such a challenge for everyone else. Was it such a challenge 10, 20, or 25 years ago? Who has/had lists? Are/were the lists brand-specific? And, out of curiosity, how much money do you spend on one childís school supplies at the beginning of the year?

— Posted by Michael @ 11:19 AM


I think part of the problem is using the school supply lists that are located IN THE STORE, NEXT TO THE SCHOOL SUPPLIES. If you get a list directly from a teacher, it usually does not specify brands. Teachers are barely scraping by themselves; they understand the value of a dollar.

But to answer your question, yes, schools do get a kickback. Target and other retailers often donate 10% of their profit on school supplies to local schools.

Anonymous Anonymous
, at 11:59 AM, August 11, 2006  

My childrens' school supplies weren't a big deal HOWEVER! we have "Book fees" which, for 3 kids totals $250 this year. Due by November 1.

Anonymous Anonymous
, at 3:48 PM, August 11, 2006  

Schools and colleges are now selling what ever they can besides academics.At times besides is absent.Business doing is the main thing now.Academics is gone.


I would totally buy the off brands just because it said not to. No one should be telling you that you have to spend more!


ITA w/ the first commenter. Get a list from the teacher(s), and just buy everything on that.

Anonymous Anonymous
, at 10:50 PM, August 12, 2006  

Well, I was told the teachers have noticed that some of the off brands don't work as well as the name brands - glue, for instance. Apparently, they don't want a bunch of frustrated 5-year-olds on their hands.

HOWEVER, I think it's kind of weird that my daughter is supposed to bring TWO pairs of scissors to second grade this year. Why not just one pair?

Anonymous Anonymous
, at 5:58 PM, August 13, 2006  

I wonder if this has to do with schools feeling they have to enforce some kind of "equlity" and keep kids from "feeling bad" if they have the "wrong" brand of crayons? To which I respond: a) why isn't the bargain brand the one to buy? and b) when are kids going to learn that not everyone gets everything and dealing with it is part of life? I don't have kids but this stuff really angers me -- thanks for the great post!!

Anonymous Anonymous
, at 9:31 PM, August 14, 2006  

to anonymous
I got my list of supplies from the school, not the store, and everything on it was brand name, from the Ticonderoga pencils to the boxes of Kleenex. The principal insisted that we must buy as indicated ...
So much for teachers understanding the value of a dollar...

Anonymous Anonymous
, at 12:11 AM, August 20, 2006  

I agree with Anonymous (two comments up): I think it's like uniforms. They don't want the kids who have genuine Crayola brand crayons lording it over the ones whose parents bought them Rose Art instead. I'm sure this has led to many a schoolyard taunting.

The quantity issue is weird. Last year I went shopping for back-to-school with my brother-in-law and then-sister-in-law, and I remember that one of the things they had to do was get each of their kids a separate package of 10 red pens. So two kids had 20 red pens for a school year! Wouldn't it have been easier all around to just say "red pens as needed" and let the family buy a couple and store them at home until the kids need them? I can't imagine that there's THAT much correction--in ink, no less--that goes on in the second grade.

I'm glad I've still got a couple of years before this becomes an issue. :-)

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