Saturday, September 10, 2011

Back to $chool

Originally posted by Tribune Media Services

Last week, millions of Americans stood helplessly by as significant portions of their net worth were wiped out. And no, I'm not talking about the stock market.

I'm talking about something far more horrifying: The moment they saw their child's back-to-school supply list.

When it comes to my children's education, I feel I've been a very responsible parent. Shortly after both daughters were born, I established 529 college savings plans and faithfully contribute to them each month. Oh, sure, the wild market fluctuations mean that those plans contain enough money for an Ivy League degree on Tuesday and not enough for a single online course on Wednesday, but that may be a moot point. Based on the increasingly puzzling list of necessary school supplies, not to mention the quantity, I'm starting to wonder if I should establish another 529 plan to cover primary school.

My soon-to-be fourth-grader proudly displayed her list this week. When I attended fourth grade, my school supplies fit quite easily into a shoebox, thank you very much. Eventually, we even used the shoebox in art class to make a "diorama," loosely defined as "something built inside a shoebox." On the first day of class, that box contained a couple of No. 2 pencils, an eraser, a bottle of glue, a pair of scissors, a ruler and a compass. The latter could either be used to draw respectable looking circles or as a weapon. With the shoebox tucked under one arm and a spiral notebook under the other, I was locked and loaded until June.

From my perspective as a volunteer parent, the primary school curriculum has changed little in the past 40 years. My 9-year-old is still learning the basic subjects along with cursive writing, a skill that will disappear once she gets her first cellphone and begins texting.

What has changed considerably are school budgets. In short, they are a mess and my daughter's school is no exception. That's why it's obvious that school officials drastically slash school supply budgets simply by transferring the expenses to the parents. How else to explain the need for every fourth-grader to lumber off the bus on Day One with SIX glue sticks, TWO dispensers of invisible tape, THREE packs of Post-it notes and TWO boxes of Kleenex?

At least she's not in eighth grade. Those kids need 64 No. 2 pencils! Parents have already been warned that class sizes will increase this year to an average of 33 students. Now we're finding out that each class will also contain 2,112 pencils.

How is anybody supposed to move, much less learn?

The glue stick quantity riled me. Six sticks? For each student? When I attended school, a lone bottle of Elmer's lasted the entire year, usually because any art projects required a mere dollop for every item that became part of the diorama. The dollop flowed easily the first time the bottle was opened; afterward, the leftover residue on the tip became a glue dam, stopping any fresh glue from passing by unless the owner pierced it with a sharp object. Hence the need for the compass.

Now, with more than 180 glue sticks readily available, the fourth grade should be able to tackle more serious projects, such as replacing any bricks that come loose from the school's foundation.

Finally, the most puzzling (and most expensive) item of all: A pair of digital stereo headphones, "with ear bud and cushion." Upon seeing this, I quickly scanned the remainder of the list, wondering if I had to spring for an iPod and a $100 iTunes card. Thankfully those items were absent, so I'm left to wonder how my daughter is supposed to hear her teacher when she is wearing ear buds? I'm also wondering if I should get the $14.99 pair I found at Sears or whether she will get a better education if I spring for the $240 model from

Headphones aside, fulfilling this list is going to set the Schwem budget back at least $200. It's enough to make you want to stick a compass in your eye.

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