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SCHOOL SUPPLIES: The cost of a free education

Posted on Tuesday, July 30, 2013 at 10:02 am

Former Harvard president Derek Boc famously said, “You think education is expensive, try ignorance.” But the question for many parents doing back-to-school shopping is just how much extra does a “free” education cost.

john coffelt bylineGranted, teachers strive to make supply lists as inexpensive as possible, but where pencil meets paper, so to speak, the costs of supplies quickly adds up.

“We hope to spend less than $40,” said Rachel Hutchinson of the New Union Community, not counting what will be spent on new clothes.

Hutchinson was shopping for school supplies Wednesday at the Manchester Walmart. She said that she plans to go a little cheaper this year on school supplies.

Hutchinson, with a child in home school and a fourth-grader at New Union Elementary, said that her back-to-school list here is a lot better than when she lived in Louisiana, where returning to school costs about $50-75 for supplies.

1A_new union listTo get a closer look at back-to-school costs, two lists were chosen and listed in the accompanying charts – the third grade at New Union Elementary School and the eighth grade at Westwood Middle School. Neither the cheapest nor most expensive items were chosen. Most of the area schools’ supply lists are very similar, so no school or district was singled out.

The items on the New Union supply list come to about $47, not including tax. A civic-minded parent who purchases the classroom “wish list” is looking at an additional $21 for a grand total of about $70 for supplies and classroom materials.

Most of the items on all of the lists are relatively inexpensive. Glue, glue sticks erasers and crayons are all about 50 cents apiece. The backpack is the most expensive item on the list. Items such as highlighters and pencils are sold in multiple unit packs so items could be shared in multi-child households.

But those supplies and prices do not include clothes – a sure certainty for back-to-school time. If parents were to include three new outfits, the price would jump to approximately $97-144. Boys’ pants were recently on sale at JCPenny in Tullahoma for $29, shirts for $10. Girls’ tops were priced at $24, with jeans the same price. Boy’s and girl’s shorts were on sale for $9.99.

Parents of middle school students can expect to spend a little more on school supplies. The eighth-grade list came to $52.45 before tax.

An optional TI-3411 calculator suggested for home use was $18.94 at Walmart online. At the high school level, higher math classes strongly suggest a TI-82 graphing calculator, which list for $90 at

Expensive for teachers, too

Coffee County Middle School language arts teacher Stephanie Fischer said that the county’s “wish list” designation should help save parents money by clarifying what are the essentials.

“Most years we are asked at the middle school to compile a grade level supply list to be sent home to students,” she said. “We have always tried to make these lists as minimal as possible, but this year [Coffee County Director of Schools] Dr. [LaDonna] McFall and [CCMS Principal] Mrs. Kim Aaron wanted our lists to clearly be labeled with what items were ‘wish list’ items. Hopefully, by doing that the cost for parents was greatly reduced.”

Fischer, president of the Coffee County Teacher Association, said that the cost of educational supplies falls on the teachers, as well.

“As for me personally,” she said, “I know that I have spent nearly $200 in the last week-and-a-half buying supplies for my students that I feel will help me with our new push toward Common Core standards and teaching my students to reason.”

She offers a glimpse into why teachers put items beyond pen and paper on the list.

“This year in English/Language Arts there is going to be a focus on Westwoodstudents’ abilities to reason through a text and write based on that reasoning. To that end, I felt my students would each need a spiral bound notebook and each student would need a variety of highlighter colors to be able to pull evidence from their texts. So I spent $80 on highlighters alone, and this was after shopping sales and purchasing from Big Lots in Tullahoma and Murfreesboro.”

More than pencil and paper

Each year the local Boards of Education approve the fees for the school year. In addition to standard pencils and paper, some classes, especially at the higher level, charge student fees for participation.

Fees pay for additional items that are needed in the classroom, but funding budgets won’t cover – things like art supplies, shop material and science lab items.

Coffee County Central High School students may face math, English and Spanish fees of $5 in addition to a parking permit fee for those who drive.

First-year CHS Principal Joey Vaughn said that the school tries to limit what parents have to pay to what is absolutely necessary.

At Coffee County Middle School, this year’s pending science fee is $10, art $4 and shop is $15. There is also a proposed $25 band fee for students who use a school-owned instrument. This is not every student. Many own their own instruments.

Both Coffee County and Manchester City Schools have board polices that allow for fee waivers.

According to county school board policy, “School fees shall be waived for students who receive free or reduced-price school lunches. The application for determining eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches on a form supplied by the State Department of Education shall be used to verify student eligibility for fee waivers.”

Last year, CHS implemented a “bring your own device” program that incorporates students’ smart phones, laptops or tablets into the lesson plan. Students are not required to have the technology, but many parents are opting for the purchase.

An HP Slate 7, eight gigabyte tablet and the Samsung Galaxy Tab list for $139.99 online after discounts. Apple’s iPad minis start at $329.

How much money do you spend on back-to-school shopping (including clothes)?

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