Investigative
6:00 am
Tue September 6, 2011

School supplies not required, but encouraged

For most Michigan kids, today is the first day back to school.  And many are taking backpacks full of school supplies. They are not required to take school supplies. By state law the public schools are to supply everything students need for class. 

When you add it all up, the new school clothes, gym shoes, and all those binders, crayons, paper, pens and pencils, back-to-school shopping is big business.

“It’s really become probably the second biggest shopping period of the year, right behind Christmas.”

That’s Tom Scott with Michigan Retailers Association. One national estimate puts back-to-school shopping at about 16 percent of retail business in a year. It’s difficult to separate just how much of that is actual school supplies and not clothes or computers. 

The school districts always put out a long list of things kids might need for school and parents start hunting.

But a free-market think tank, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, is telling parents they don’t have to buy the items on that list.  Patrick Wright wrote a commentary for the Mackinac Center.

“Many people think this is a scavenger hunt and wonder why it’s being placed on the parents and particularly when the (state) constitution has clarified that this is a duty of the school districts.”

Wright says public school districts must provide all school supplies for mandatory and elective classes. 

Wright says school districts don’t always make it clear that parents are not obligated to supply those things. 

Michigan Watch randomly checked a number of school district websites and the ones we found used words such as “suggested” supplies.

Most of the parents we talked to seemed to be aware of the distinction, but didn’t really care whether their school district suggested or required the school supplies. 

We found Kim Channey from Ann Arbor out shopping for school supplies.

“Today, this is our first stop because I had to rest from all the other days of shopping (laugh).”

Channey says she’s aware she’s not required to get all those things on the list… but…

“I realize that the state is over-taxed as it is and, you know, budgets are tight . I’m willing to do for mine and for other children too.”

Other shoppers we talked to also knew.  But, they still were buying for their kids… and more for the classroom.  Many schools ask parents not to put their kids’ names on the supplies, because they’ll be shared with the entire class.

Christie Kubacki was also out shopping for school supplies for her kids.  She just happens to be a school teacher as well.  She says, like a lot of other teachers, she’ll be shopping for school supplies all year.  Kubacki says many if not most teachers spend hundreds of dollars on supplies for their students. 

 “And, you know, as much planning as we try to do in advance, you can’t always forsee what you’re going to need.  So, sometimes it’s just easier just to drop that $10, you know, late at night when you’re out shopping and then it makes your teaching easier to have what you need.”

And school administrators say the generosity of their teachers and parents makes the difference in many schools.

David Pray is Superintendent of Schools in Clinton, Michigan. 

“In our particular community, the parents have been very good about bringing in extra supplies for us and helping our budget.  The recent cuts by the legislature and the governor have made it even more challenging for us.”

But at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, commentator Patrick Wright says schools should make it very clear to parents, spell it out, that they don’t have to buy school supplies, that it’s voluntary.  And if the school districts have to spend more for supplies, they can cut back elsewhere.

“When you have a fixed constitutional cost, that should be the first thing that would get budgeted.  At that next point would you start budgeting other things.  Teachers’ salaries have to be paid, but there are some flexibilities in what can be offered to them.”

So, Wright suggests cut teachers salaries, privatize more services, save money other places, but don’t suggest to parents that they are obligated to buy school supplies for their kids.