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Foraging for school supplies is not for the easily flustered. Like many parents this time of year, I trek from retailer to retailer, securing the items on my son's school supply list. The lesson learned early in this annual scavenger hunt: Public education is scarcely free.

American families are projected to spend an average of $527 this year on back-to-school shopping, according to the latest National Retail Federation survey. While most spending will be for clothes and electronics, some $86 will go toward school supplies, up from $73 just two years ago.

Back when today's parents were in elementary school, it was presumed students would provide only a few inexpensive products for their own personal use, such as spiral notebooks and pencils. Nowadays, parents and teachers alike are expected – often required – to stock classrooms with a wide-range of office and household goods.

Found on current supply lists from across the country:

In addition to a $20 book fee per child, third-graders at one Chicago elementary school are required to bring 25 items on the first day of school, including grading pens, tissues, hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes, and paper towels. Another 10 items, including ink cartridges and transparencies, are listed as optional.

Among the 16 items first-graders in one Memphis, Tenn., school are expected to acquire: a ream of copy paper, a disposable camera, tissues, plastic zip bags, envelopes, dry-erase markers, and red-ink pens.

First-graders in Milton, Fla., are asked, though not required, to each bring five boxes of crayons, four bottles of white glue, six packages of No. 2 pencils, and 16 other assorted office supplies.

The general supply list for fifth-graders in Houston lists 22 required items including a blue, hard-lead grading pencil. A note indicates specific teachers may ask for additional supplies.

When students tote a backpack full of office supplies to school, something is bound to be out of kilter. The question that must be addressed is not if such supplies are needed in classrooms – they are – but rather who should provide them in the public school setting: taxpayers, teachers, parents, or private donors?


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