“Should school organizations furnish all, part, or none of the supplies that can be considered essential for an education?”

It’s a pressing issue right now as parents across the nation hit the stores with school supply lists.

But this question didn’t come from Instagram or Gallup — rather, from a nearly century old article that raised the question in the December 1932 issue of the Review of Educational Research.

Back then, the issue of who is responsible for buying the supplies students need was complicated by corruption and cronyism — including janitors who sold supplies to students as a side hustle. Let’s hope that’s no longer the case. But the debate reappears every fall, as teachers send lists to the parents of incoming students, requesting everything from pencils to hand sanitizer for their classrooms, in often perplexing quantities.

The school supply list for my first grader this year, for example, included 24 Elmer glue sticks. Twenty-four. If I stacked them up, they’d be about as tall as my son. And if he’s in a class of, say, 20 students, what is that class going to be doing that will require 480 glue sticks?

The lists are equally baffling to Jane Brosseau, a mother of 10 who lives in Camas, Washington. And the expense is so burdensome for a family that size that she’ll have to wait until mid-month, when Brosseau’s husband gets paid again, to finish buying everything on the list. By then, some of the supplies will inevitably have run out; in many areas, school-supply shelves are sparse long before Labor Day.

And the wishes are getting more sophisticated — and expensive. Amazon wish lists are increasingly common and include things that might seem extravagant to parents struggling with inflation (a $55 crayon sharpener) or things it seems the school district should buy (a $79 folding table).

That’s not to say that teachers are to blame — for every parent upset by a school supply list, there’s someone upset that teachers feel they have to ask. And some people on social media are raising money to fulfill teachers’ lists, and some neighborhoods are holding block parties, rallying around the hashtag #Clearthelist.

But parents out shopping this month can’t be blamed for asking: Where does it stop?

Slate boards and headache medicine

Brosseau, the mother of 10, told me that she will spend about $500 on back-to-school supplies this month; that amount doesn’t include any new clothes. “There’s no new ‘first day of school’ outfit,” she said. If the children absolutely need shoes, she’ll find them some secondhand pairs.

Though Brosseau’s burden is unusually large because of the size of her family, there’s little comfort for strapped parents in knowing that they’re participants in a debate that’s been going on since colonial times. There may have been exceptions, but for the most part, schools never supplied everything a pupil needed. 

“When you imagine kids bringing in an apple for the teacher, that was also true for literally everything else,” said Campbell Scribner, a University of Maryland professor of education policy and the author of “A is for Arson: A History of Vandalism in American Education.” “Each kid would bring their own book from home and they would not be the same. If you had 20 kids in the classroom, they might have 20 different books they were reading from.”

Of course, in those days, many children were taught at home; if they were sent out of the house to learn, they went to study under a local widow or widower or they went to a church that had hired someone to teach, according to Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs, a curator in the National Museum of American History’s Division of Home and Community Life. 

However, in some areas, like Massachusetts, even as early as the 1600s there were already laws stating that towns had to collect taxes to fund local schools. Even when the schools supplied books, children had to bring their own slates and slate pens. (Because those were so noisy, teachers had a supply of their own — headache medicine, Schaefer-Jacobs said. Mercifully, parents weren’t asked to provide that.)

Around the time of the Civil War, the long transition from slate to paper began; what we think of as a bound notebook today surfaced after the Civil War and became popularized during the late 1800s and early 1900s. While printed notebooks were available for students to purchase in urban areas, rural America saw families stitching paper together themselves to create notebooks, Schaefer-Jacobs said.

In other words, not only did families at the turn of the century have to provide school supplies, they had to make them.

Corruption and cronyism

After World War I, the debate of how to get school supplies into pupils’ hands continued, seeming to reach a fever pitch with the Great Depression, as everyone — state and local governments and families — was strapped for cash. 

In his 1932 article, John Guy Fowlkes, who was a professor at University of Wisconsin, Madison, noted that the practice of providing school supplies varied greatly at the time.

“Theoretically, at least, it seems that school authorities should furnish all necessary instructional materials in providing public-school education. ... In some schools where supplies are not furnished by the school, the supplies are sold to the pupils,” Fowlkes wrote, pointing out that the practice was both more efficient and economical because “the school buys in large quantities and may then sell to the pupils at relatively low prices,”

But it wasn’t always the schools selling the supplies to the pupils. Sometimes individuals did it as a side hustle. “School janitors often got their jobs because they knew somebody — it was like a patronage kind of job — they had a friend on the school board or whatever. And they often would have side businesses (in the schools) where they would sell both candy and food to the kids, but also sell paper and pencils,” Scribner said.

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“Back when schools were supplying these things there were all kinds of opportunities for kickbacks and graft,” he added. Schools would buy things from someone’s “brother-in-law or whatever,” he said. “So there was plenty of local corruption.”

Relieving the burden

Though the existence of today’s school supply list is often explained as a result of decreased school funding and tighter budgets, the idea of our nation’s schools being underfunded “doesn’t hold up to scrutiny,” Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “How The Other Half Learns,” said in an email. Per-student spending in the U.S. is higher than in most other countries, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Still, in a 2018 Department of Education survey, 94% of public school teachers said they paid for classroom supplies out of pocket.

Pondiscio said that when he was a public-school teacher, he spent thousands of dollars of his own money on curriculum resources. “But I never once asked — and never would dream of asking — low-income families in the South Bronx where I taught to contribute money they didn’t have to my classroom.”

This sentiment was echoed by other veteran teachers. “I don’t really ask parents or families for much because I know a lot of them ... just can’t afford it,” said Susan Rockey, a resource teacher in Grosse Ile, Michigan, who has been in the classroom for almost 30 years. 

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In addition to social media influencers raising money for teachers’ lists, at least one municipality has stepped in to help relieve the burden on students’ families. The city of Leominster, Massachusetts, has announced that it will provide all students — from kindergarten through 12th grade — with the necessary supplies this year.

“They say this year, it’s an average of $842 per child to get them back to school. Our goal is to get every student into class without breaking the family’s budget,” Mayor Dean Mazzarella told a local TV station. (The district is also waiving fees for sports and Advanced Placement classes, among others.)

The mayor wasn’t exaggerating. The National Retail Association reported last month that “Families with children in elementary through high school plan to spend an average of $890.07 on back-to-school items this year, approximately $25 more than last year’s record of $864.35 and a new high.”

And it will get worse when your kids go to college. For families of college students, back-to-school spending has nearly doubled since 2019, the National Retail Association said, with college students spending, on average, $1,366.95 for supplies for their classroom and dorm.

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