The Surprising Cost Of Elementary School

Pens, colored pencils, plasticine, book, hundred dollar bills

Olivia Hagan

Every September, we high school students have only a short list of school supplies to purchase. In addition to the school-provided iPads, we’re asked to bring a couple of notebooks, pen and pencil, and a binder or two at most. The requirements are minimal, and in most cases, any color or brand will suffice. It’s a different story for our younger counterparts. Elementary students, or more specifically, their parents, are required by their schools to hunt down and purchase a painstakingly specific, seemingly never-ending list of materials.

List of school supplies for a sixth grade classroom.

Color codes and other specifics often vary between grades, rendering materials already on hand from previous years useless. Finding a particular color and brand can also be difficult and require searching multiple stores. What’s more, not all of these materials are always returned at the end of the year, so they must be purchased all over again. Consequently, by the time their children complete elementary school, parents will have spent thousands of dollars just buying supplies.

The Huntington Bank’s Backpack Index found that a full list of elementary school supplies generally costs $650 per child, having increased by 88% in the last decade. Most families have more than one child, meaning they have to spend two or more times that amount. The increase in the use of technology in classrooms has indubitably contributed to the rise, since items such as headphones and calculators, which are among the costliest, are not necessarily provided by the school. According to a survey by Junior Achievement, paying for school supplies is a challenge for 60% of parents in the United States.

However, removing some of the burden from parents would only mean transferring more of it to teachers, many of whom have children of their own to pay for. Elementary school teachers already spend about $600 per year to stock their classrooms, as indicated by a survey conducted by the nonprofit organization AdoptaClassroom.org. And altering school budgets to cover more supplies could divert funds from programs students care about.

Besides being exorbitant for families to pay, the need to buy new supplies also generates an overwhelming amount of waste. Students often don’t use nearly the amount they are required to buy. Loree Cohen, an Oceanside parent, is still using and getting rid of her children’s notebooks from elementary school. Both are out of college. “They only used 8 to 12 pages,” she says, noting that a different notebook was required for each subject. Since most teachers know approximately how much their students will use from past experience, it might be more efficient to use one notebook with smaller sections for each subject, Cohen suggests. Another parent suggests a similar solution, using a binder divided by subject, since paper can be added as needed so that none is wasted, and the frame can be reused. As it stands, most leftover supplies end up in landfills.

In an effort to remedy this, some companies have implemented incentives that allow the excess from their products to be returned for recycling. One of the most innovative is Crayola’s ColorCycle program, which allows people to ship dried-up markers back to the company, where they are turned into a liquid fuel that can be used to power vehicles and homes. Crayola prepays the FedEx shipping labels so that returning the markers is free of cost to its customers. Besides just reducing waste, this program posits a creative solution to the energy consumption problem as well.

To help combat both the cost and waste factors here on Long Island, Long Island Cares holds an annual drive that accepts gently used as well as new supplies. This organization works to prevent children from going hungry by providing money-consuming necessities besides food. Donating unused materials to charity or handing them down to students who would otherwise have to buy new ones makes going back to school much more affordable for many families.

Even if we can’t reduce the amount of school supplies students need to buy, we can still reuse and recycle to abate the strain on families and the environment. As the demand and costs continue to climb, we’ll have to work as a community to make it doable.