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August 19, 2007

The Economics of Back to School

It's here.  Just around the corner, in fact.  Almost three weeks away if your child is enrolled in the Chicago Public Schools, probably sooner if you live in the suburbs or go to private schools. 

The first day of school.

Back when I was a kid in Connecticut, we prepared for this day with back to school shopping.  You know, some fall clothes, a pair of shoes, and - as we got older - some sort of organizer.  (Those who know me are probably tired of hearing how much I loved those damn Trapper Keepers.)  You know: the usual.

Fast forward a gazillion years, and here I am preparing my son for second grade in the Chicago Public Schools. Now, this is our second year here and yet I am still blown away by the "school supply list".  If you don't have a school-aged child yet, I know you've seen us anyway, loading up our carts at Target and Office Depot.  Moms and children arguing over which index card size the new teacher meant, and should the lined paper be "wide ruled" or "college ruled"?  We throw the 26 pairs of scissors in the cart, wondering what happened to the ones purchased for this class last year.  Did all 26 of them get broken?  All I can tell you is that, when all those boxes were checked off, we had spent $100 on the required supplies.  That was before we threw in the items on the teacher's personal list of needs for her classroom (e.g., tape, packing tape, white-out).  And we only have one child in school so far.  I can't imagine doing this for two, three, four children!

I initially imagined this to be a Chicago Public Schools funding problem, but I've been set straight.  So far, I know they do this in the suburbs of Chicago, in the state of Minnesota, and on Long Island.  Perhaps we were in the minority, not having to supply our own pens and pencils (not to mention Kleenex and paper towels) in California.

In fact, while talking to a relative who lives with her family in a well-off, predominantly white suburb of Chicago, I determined that we are actually lucky!  Here in the city we don't have to pay $130 per year for the kids' math and reading workbooks, nor is there a fee to keep your child at school for lunch.  That's right: in some places, they ask you to come get your child to eat lunch at home - and then bring them right back - because they don't have enough funding to staff the lunchrooms and/or build bigger cafeterias.  Sounds like a tax on working moms, if you ask me.  This relative of mine rattled off fees that, when added together, came to at least $200.  And that didn't include the school supplies.

There are more important battles to be waged with schools in 2007: the emphasis on test scores, the serious lack of physical education, the overcrowding in some places.  And yet, if it is difficult for my middle class family to hand over the money for those school supplies, how are families of lower socio-economic status, especially families living in poverty, doing it at all? 

Maybe next year I'll get used to this.  Perhaps the third time's the charm. 

But I doubt it.


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