Does Your Child Really Need All That Stuff?

Written by Mary McGarr   August 16, 2007 Updated September 2014

Most parents by now have picked up a Supply List and filled a sack with all the necessary items for back to school. Doing so is a regular part of getting kids ready for school. I realize that certain supplies are necessary for school work, and as a former teacher, I was always happy when I was not the only supplier of No. 2 pencils or wide ruled paper, but after a friend suggested that I take a look at what is on some of these lists, I'm thinking that perhaps things have gone too far. In todayís Chronicle it is noted that the Christian ministries at both ends of the district provide about 1,300 school supply packets. Iím guessing that the PTOís around the district supply some as well. No one wants any child to be lacking the essentials, and that is good. No problem for me there.

Essential to understanding my point of view on supply lists is a grasp of how I feel about governments taking tax money they donít need just because they can. In my view, any required supplies for students, becomes in essence a tax, because it IS required, but if the ďtaxĒ is truly necessary, once again, I have no problem with it.

Having said that, letís look at what our Katy schools are doing. When I stopped at the cardboard Kiosk at Wal Mart and a couple of other places, I was able to find supply lists for most of the schools. In looking at the lists some items really jumped out at me, and so I will note them here. Supply lists appear to exist for elementary schools and for junior high/middle schools, while high school students probably get their lists from individual teachers on the first day of school. The lists seem to have started out with a basic list, and then each school has added to it. The lists (and I highly recommend that all parents grab a few copies from several schools so you can see these things for yourselves) have basic requirements at the top (facial tissue, pencils, scissors, paper, and so on) and then lists peculiar to each grade level.

For example at WoodCreek Elementary we learn by looking that the third grade needs ten manila folders while the kindergarteners and the third graders need three manila folders while the fourth grade needs just three of them and the first graders need only two but the fifth graders donít need any! Now I know thereís probably an explanation for that, but I canít think of one.

One can find out all sorts of things from the lists. At Wood Creek Elementary in addition to the six No. 2 pencils that are required of all second through fourth graders, the second graders have to buy 18 more, the fourth graders have to buy 6 more and the fifth graders have to buy 12 more while the third graders will just have to do with the original six pencils.

While writing in journals was a popular exercise twenty years ago (and one of which I do not approve), it is interesting to see who is still engaged in that old-fashioned activity. (Journals are those things that teachers utilize to find out if Mom and Dad are brushing their teeth before bed every night --among other things.) It would appear that out of the twenty-one elementary schools for which I have lists, only one has need for PreK students to have a journal; only one has kindergarteners using one; three schools have them for first graders; at Kilpatrick the second and fifth graders need TWO of these empty bound books; only one school has third graders buying them, while five schools have the fourth graders and seven schools have the fifth graders purchasing them.

One large box of facial tissue seems to be de rigueur in all but West Memorial Elementary which wants parents to send TWO boxes. I would be concerned about that, but West Memorial Elementary also is one of a handful of schools requiring all students to bring hand sanitizer, so IĎm guessing theyĎre just being cautious about the spread of diseases and viruses. (My suggestion is, send the hand sanitizer whether they ask for it or not!)

I could wax poetic about some of the other items--like glue sticks that dry up after a week of use, or black fine line Sharpies that might get one's child in A school, or paper plates (I thought kids couldn't eat in class any more) (and yes I know they can be used in art class), or graph paper (which no one seems to need), or rulers, or ďred lead checking pencilsĒ which I thought were passť, or the permanent black marker only for second graders at Schmalz, or something called ďEducational Products #25-334,Ē or baby wipes, or white lunch sacks (versus brown lunch sacks?--another art project?), but Iíll just pique your curiosity by mentioning those things.

Writing about these supplies created some questions for me. The first that comes to mind is, I thought we had a vertically and horizontally aligned curriculum, didnít you? But if we do, how can the supplies that support such a curriculum differ so much in kind and number and grade level among schools? The second has to do with the necessity of all these supplies. I have teachers and parents telling me that there are cabinets at the schools chock full of Kleenex boxes, and that they canít imagine that they need any more of this commodity. On another note, I can see asking studentsí parents to supply the needed items for their own child, but Iím not sure I think itís ethical to be requiring students to provide items that the teacher uses. The District or the PTO should be providing those items. I know I wouldnít have asked my students to buy red pencils for me. (And please donít tell me that anyone is letting the students check each otherís papers! (And yes, I know that they do!)

The third has to do with the communal nature associated with the collection of these items. Iím guessing thereís no locker available for each child to house all these items, and keeping them separate would cause problems, so little Connorís expensive box of Puffs with nose soothing ingredients that his Mom wanted him to have, goes in the same cabinet with little Emilyís cheap box of rough store brand tissue. Sorry, but I had to point that out! 

So principals--during the year, take the time to ask teachers what they REALLY need for their students, check out the Kleenex supply, and have some consideration for the pocketbooks of your parents. When it comes time for this exercise in consumerism next summer, please come up with a valid list to which you gave some thought.

[As an addendum, I would note that three years later not much is changed other than  the journals are not as evident! April 11, 2011]

And in 2014 it has come to my attention that PTA's and other groups are using the sale of a sack full of the "required" school supplies to raise money--by charging way more than the sack of stuff is worth.  Students just need to circumvent this ruse to fill the treasuries of PTA's with big bucks.  Pay attention to what the PTA is really all about, and you won't want to fund their activities!  Besides, your children need to have the fun and experience of going to the store and picking out their OWN supplies.  You can teach them all sorts of lessons in the process, and the experience will be much more valuable to them and to you than being a chump for a PTA fundraiser.