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Originally published August 29, 2013 at 4:13 PM | Page modified August 30, 2013 at 7:21 AM

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Guest: School-supply fees have gotten out of hand

The more that schools request extensive school supplies from parents, the more unequally funded schools will be, argues guest columnist Douglas Collins.

Special to The Times

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FOR five years I’ve home-schooled two kids, providing them with all the materials and supplies they needed to study well. For the three R’s and other subjects we’ve mainly used inexpensive grade-level workbooks and free online resources.

Pencils, scratch paper and notebooks seem to just serendipitously accumulate. For projects, we raid the craft-supply bin in our house, a collection of art supplies and found objects gathered over the years, many free or from thrift stores.

In short, all our curriculum and supply needs have probably been met with an average annual outlay of $100. The biggest cost of home-schooling for me has been time, not money.

Soon, however, my kids are entering regular classrooms in the Seattle Public Schools, and we just received two rather long lists of materials parents should buy their kids.

Most items on the list are not expensive, but the list is pretty long. Even if I skipped the optional expensive items — such as the $100-plus graphing calculator — I could easily spend $70 total for both of my kids’ supplies. On top of that, the school is requesting a $35 consumable-supplies fee for each child. There goes another $70, for a total of $140. Already, the price of public schooling is more expensive than a whole year of home-schooling, and my kids haven’t even started.

I could do a lot of nitpicking about individual items on the list. For example, it asks for 36 total pencils, more than we’ve likely used in an entire five years of home-schooling.

Other items, like dry-erase markers, copy paper — even hand sanitizer — seem to be for teacher or general use. In the 1970s my parents never bought my teachers chalk or mimeograph rolls, but now similar outlays are all part of being a “good parent.”

The more that schools request such materials from parents, the more unequally funded schools will be. Schools in richer neighborhoods will be more likely to have parents who give bountifully to this sort of materials-funding system. Schools in less wealthy neighborhoods will inevitably garner fewer resources.

Like a lot of parents, I feel like I’m in a quandary about how to respond. Am I being a bad parent if I don’t buy everything on the list? Will the teacher harbor resentments toward my kids, resulting in subliminal grade deflation?

Such a materials-funding system pits parents, teachers and individual schools all against each other. It shames the noncomplying parent, who might not have many resources.

From an efficiency viewpoint, this system is also impractical. Thousands of small transactions at Office Depot are not bound to leverage the volume discounts that larger sales to a school district would. And just think of the carbon emissions of all those moms and dads making special trips to the store.

I can understand the feelings of teachers and principals who rightfully want enough supplies. It would be hard to run a typical class without dry-erase markers and copy paper, and to teach kids who have no pencils or notebooks.

But if our public schools are to be the Great Equalizer, then asking parents in neighborhoods of uneven wealth to fund so many supplies is the wrong route. The Seattle school district should ban individual schools from asking parents for anything more than basic writing and organizing implements: binders, notebooks, lined paper, an eraser and some pens and pencils.

The cost of these basics is negligible, and many parents probably have them sitting around the house.

The school district should furthermore ensure adequate and equal access to teacher supplies and to nondaily student supplies. Seattle kids shouldn’t have to carry around their own rarely needed compasses all year. (You know, those circle-drawing gadgets that you used a couple times in geometry class.) Real progress would be a box of compasses, furnished by the district to each school, shared among classrooms as needed, and reused each year.

That would teach our kids a great lesson in sensible efficiency.

Douglas Collins is a community college English-as-a-second-language teacher in Seattle and, until Sept. 4, a home-schooling father.

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