Q: I have the school supply lists for two of my three kids, and I am waiting for the third. Each year they get longer. One teacher wants five sticks of one brand of glue. When did teachers get so picky? What's wrong with generics? Why are parents responsible for so much of a room's general supplies? It's really expensive!
A: The days of grabbing a few pencils, a notebook and an eraser to stuff into a backpack are gone. School supply lists have grown longer and more specific in the past few years.
"Today, lists supplement class curriculum needs, such as art supplies, and provide for cleanup and classroom hygiene," says Tim Sullivan, president of PTO Today, an organization that supports parent-teacher groups. "Tissues and paper towels are among the top-five most requested school supply items."
Why is this falling on parents?
"Two reasons," says Sullivan, a former school administrator. "One, school budgets are stretched more tightly than ever. The average teacher spends nearly $500 of her own money (each year). In years past, they bought basic supplies; now they're purchasing books and resources to fill in gaps in learning materials.
"Two, we all want our kids' classrooms to have the supplies needed for a great, healthy year. You may send your child to school with tissues, but others may forget. Teachers appreciate it when parents pitch in on the basics."
Educators put a lot of thought into their lists. When it comes to generics versus brands, "teachers have preferences based on experience," says Sullivan. "Sometimes a certain brand fits exactly into a cubby, is more reliable, or works better for a project.
"Many teachers bundle supplies into shared buckets for all kids, so having just one brand helps eliminate dust-ups over who gets which glue stick. If it's a supply that's clearly just for your child, such as a backpack or a pencil sharpener, you're OK going generic."
Before you head out to shop, check TeacherLists.com, where you might find lists from all three of your children's teachers. (Teachers who post their lists here are eligible for free classroom supplies.) You can print the lists out or access them from your smartphone right at the store.
"Back-to-school is now the second-biggest retail event of the year (after the December holidays), and the good news is that stores want your business!" says Sullivan. "Sales on school supplies abound like never before, especially on common brand items.
"Check the Web and Sunday circulars through Labor Day, and you'll find one door-buster after another. Whether it's penny notebooks or half-off hand sanitizer, careful shoppers can save big."
If you can't afford the clothes and supplies needed for each child, most schools can direct you to funds through PTOs, area church or service groups, or local foundations. Call the school secretary to see what may be available in your district.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)