With school budgets tightening, school-approved supply lists have become widespread in California. Teachers and principals are banking on parents buying items not only for their child, but to also stock classroom cabinets. Reporter: Ana Tintocalis
It's the beginning of another school year for most California students, and state schools face another year of financial uncertainty with close to 200 school districts edging toward insolvency.
The tight budget situation is forcing schools to rely more on parents to fill the void, and it starts with those vital back-to-school supplies.
Some parents dread the back-to-school shopping ritual but others, like mother Almetria Vaba, prepare for it like a student prepares for an exam.
“If I see a sale on a school supply, I will buy it,” said Vaba, who lives with her family live in Castro Valley, a Bay Area suburb east of Oakland.
Vaba’s son is a 3rd grader this year and she has timed her school supply shopping just right so she can take advantage of discounts.
According to a recent survey by retail consulting firm Deloitte, back-to-school shopping is now the second most profitable time for retailers in the U.S. Most families head to discount department stores like Target where they can purchase everything from Kleenex packs to mini-size calculators.
Like many other parents, Vaba tackles her shopping by referring to a special back-to-school shopping list provided by her son's principal. A couple dozen items are requested.
“I’ll buy the whole list,” Vaba said. “If [school officials] asked me for [the supplies], then I feel like its something that I would supply … and I’m sure they’ll use [the supplies] in the classroom.”
School-approved supply lists have become widespread in California. Teachers and principals are banking on parents like Vaba to buy classroom items not only for their child, but to also stock classroom cabinets.
These lists cover everything from pencils and paper to a dry erase board and statistics calculator.
While these lists may seem trivial to some, experts say they underscore how schools no longer have the money to provide basic learning materials throughout the year.
Retail analysts say families will spend more on supplies this year due, in part, to school budget cuts. The majority of families will spend up to $250 on back-to-school items. About 18 percent will spend up to $500.
Stacey Hunter is a mom in San Francisco who feels schools are crossing the line.
Hunter says school supply lists are just the beginning. Parents at her school are kicking in to support school auctions, bake sales, booster activities and school foundations. Hunter says some cash-strapped parents feel like they have to choose between their child's education or food on the table.
“There’s nothing that indicates that [these activities] are optional,” Hunter said. “The problem I see is the state is supposed to be providing a free public education.”
Brooks Allen is an attorney with the ACLU, which filed a lawsuit against the state because too many schools were illegally charging students for things like sports uniforms, field trips, textbooks and arts programs.
The state constitution guarantees every child receive a free public education. Allen says forcing parents to pay for even basic supplies can violate state law.
The ACLU wants the State Department of Education to take a stronger role in telling schools what constitutes as a donation, and what is an illegal fee.
“We’re trying to ensure that when [donation requests] are done, they’re done in a way that respects students constitutional right, and respects the right that all students have to equal access and equal opportunity,” Allen said.
School officials, however, say families should expect more donation requests and fundraising help if Governor Jerry Brown tax measure fails in November. Public schools stand to lose six billion.
The ACLU says more schools are updating their fee policies. Meanwhile a bill making its way through the Legislature would set up a process where parents could file a complaint with the school district and, in some cases, get reimbursed for costs they shouldn't have had to take on.