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Globe magazine

The hidden costs of public school

One mom tracks all the things a free education doesn’t cover: pencils, field trips, athletic fees, boxes of Kleenex, and more.

I HAD A GEEK-LIKE adoration for new notebooks when I was a kid. Those colorful covers. The untouched pages. And then Mead came out with the Trapper Keeper, and legions of kids joined the ranks. So when it came time for my daughter to enter school and make that late summer pilgrimage to Kmart for school supplies, I was giddy.

Then her teacher sent the list of must-get items.

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Eleven years and another child later, my elation has turned to dread and the lists have gotten longer and more elaborate. My husband and I scour the shelves at dollar stores, and instead of sharing our son’s joy at finding a Diary of a Wimpy Kid notebook, we engage in a lengthy debate about whether the cheaper markers will dry out faster than the Crayolas. We wait in customer service lines to return items found cheaper elsewhere, and plod as a family to several stores before finding the three white binders — they must be 2-inch ones — required for our fourth-grader. The two-subject notebooks, however, are nowhere to be found, so my husband, a conspiratorial look in his eye, suggests we buy the three-subject and tear one section out. And we know what comes next: months of opening our wallets to pay for athletic fees, field trips, fund-raisers, and still more supplies.

Public school educators are expected to do more with less, and parents are required to do more. We’ve graduated from Trapper Keepers to thumb drives, and the economic outlook for schools remains bleak.

We never did buy that Diary of a Wimpy Kid notebook. It wasn’t on the list. Here’s a full accounting of what my family spent in a year, August to August, plus the demands on parents in other districts.




Average amount US parent of child K-12 is expected to shell out this back-to-school season on clothing and school supplies — 14 percent increase over last year


Number of US teachers who have used own money to pay for classroom supplies


Average amount US teachers spent per school year


Average teacher’s salary in Massachusetts in 2010-2011




On our fourth-grade son’s supplies ($58.08), backpack, and lunch bag


On our ninth-grade daughter’s supplies ($31.75), backpack, and lunch bag



For our son, including potholders and water bottle for fund-raiser ($37), tropical shirt for International Night ($20), book fairs ($40), and gift-wrap fund-raiser ($16)


For our daughter, including fee to play junior varsity field hockey ($375), charge to join chorus ($65), gift-card fund-raiser ($105), and Renaissance costume for project ($45)




TechBoston Academy

Grade 9


Supply list:

> pens

> highlighters

> lined notebook paper

> 3-ring binder

> single-subject notebook

Number of pupils in district (2011) 65,320

Average per-pupil expenditure (2010-2011) $16,902

Average single-family property tax bill (2011) $3,155

District’s estimated state funding (FY 2011) $218,353,422


Ahern Middle School

Grade 6




Sutton Elementary School 

Grade 5


Supply list:

> sharpened pencils

> enclosed pencil sharpener

> colored pencils

> markers

> 2 thin black Sharpies

> highlighters

> red pens

> small pencil box

> erasers

> 1 folder of each color: purple, yellow, blue, green, orange, red

> homework folder

> 3-ring binder

> dry-erase board

> dry-erase markers

> felt square or sock to use instead of dry-eraser

> glue sticks (6-8 minimum)


> 4 Scotch tapes

> index cards

> Post-it notes

> student agenda

> scissors

> ruler

> protractor

> compass

> 4 boxes of tissues

> 2 large containers Clorox wipes

Number of pupils in district (2011) 1,655

Average per-pupil expenditure (2010-11) $10,796

Average single-family property tax bill (2011) $4,328

District’s estimated state funding (FY 2011) $5,356,845


Proctor Elementary School

Grade 4




Wellesley Middle School

Grade 7





Number of backpacks filled with school supplies the nonprofit Cradles to Crayons Ready for School program distributed locally this year.

What’s included in the grades 5-to-8 backpacks, which would retail for about $50, including pack:

> 4 pencils

> pencil sharpener

> 2 erasers

> pack of crayons

> 2 notebooks

> 2 folders

> glue stick

> scissors

> handwritten note from community member encouraging child to have great first day of school, among other inspirational words


Segment of student body that participated in Staples’ SchoolKidz supply program at Hollis Elementary School in Braintree this year. Parents committed to buying package of supplies, which was waiting for children on first day.


Amount parents saved on supplies through program


Amount PTO raised via program

Sources: National Education Association 2005-06 survey; Massachusetts Department of Education; National Retail Federation; Massachusetts Department of Revenue.

Note: To determine costs of school lists, we shopped online in September.

Globe Magazine
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