Back-to-School Supplies Cost as Much as Average Mortgage
DALY CITY, CA - AUGUST 13: School teacher Liza Gleason shops for back to school supplies at a Target store August 13, 2008 in Daly City, California. With stores gearing up for back to school shopping, the Commerce Department reported today that retail sales fell 0.1 percent in July, the first time in five months. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
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A middle-school student might run $1,000; up from $525. And sending a fully equipped high-schooler off to class can cost nearly $1,500 — compared to $800 just 10 years ago.
All together that's an average of about $1,000 — nearly the same as the average U.S. monthly mortgage payment.
Strapped and stressed parents are pushing back.
"Just got back from the Walmarts [sic] and spent $350 per child on school supplies," said author Susannah B. Lewis in a Facebook video. "My daughter is 11. She needs two 4-inch binders...You ever seen a 4-inch binder? ...Holds 60,000 sheets of paper. Now what does an 11-year-old need with something that holds 60,000 sheets? All she's going to have is 45 sheets of diagramming sentences in there."
Her sardonic clip struck a chord, racking up more than 5 million views. Though we might have fond memories of a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper or a set of Pee Chee folders or those funny angled pencil toppers, parents and schools are struggling to cover material costs for a child's education.
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For families with more than one child, the bills of course multiply. According to a recent survey conducted for the financial literacy nonprofit Junior Achievement, 60 percent of U.S. parents struggle to pay for their school supplies.
Beyond the sticker shock, most galling for parents seems to be requests for basic supplies that seem like they should be provided by the school, like tissues, paper towels, glue sticks, or scissors.
Others are exasperated by seemingly overly specific requests for specific items, hitting multiple stores only to find that the exact kind and color of sticky pads are all sold out. Or having to share their supplies with other families who didn't bring the required amount.
And what does it matter if the pencils are Ticonderogas?
Teachers say they request specific brands to make sure that kids don't get stuck with frustrating brands that don't work as well, which can undermine classroom time. And setting the same brand for everyone helps tamp down on socioeconomic differences between pupils, and reduce bullying.
Meanwhile, the average teacher spends $600 of his or her own cash on school supplies, according to a recent annual survey by the AdoptAClassroom.org non-profit. So if you're not buying that box of Kleenex, your child's teacher is the one reaching into her pocket for it. Most states are now providing less support per student for elementary and secondary schools than before the recession, and some are still cutting, according to a 2016 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report.
Some teachers have resorted to crowdfunding. Stefanie Eskander, a collector of vintage school supplies and other sundry remembers going to kindergarten in the 1950s in a middle-class suburb of Los Angeles.
"At early elementary school we didn't need our own paper; the schools provided wide, lined individual sheets. They also provided crayons, pencils, scissors, and glue," she wrote in an email to NBC News. Students might bring a pencil box with erasers and a small ruler. As they got older, they might have to spring for a protractor or compass.
"I'm sure the teachers provided some things, but I think the school district had the funds," she wrote. "It was certainly a different time!"
As first laid out in Newton's Third Law of the Internet, for every viral rant there is an equal and opposing Facebook video.
In one that's been making the rounds, a mother shops through Target while gladly filling her cart with school supplies, a microwave for a teacher, plus candles and a rug.
“These teachers have been making plans to teach your kids, and you’re all complaining about some pencils?" said Dena Blizzard, a mother from Moorestown, New Jersey.
"Some pencils. Are you kidding me? Do you know how much I would pay them just to get my kids out of my face?"
“I have spent hours of my life teaching my daughter math and history. I don’t know anything about history,” Blizzard said in the comedy video. “And there’s a lady somewhere willing to teach my daughter about some history? And she wants a yellow binder to do it? I’m gonna get that ***** a yellow binder.”
Ben Popken is a senior business reporter for NBC News.