September 25, 2023

Jose Luis Vilson: Abolish School Supply Lists, To

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Jose Luis Vilson, teacher and education scholar, took his son shopping for school supplies and that spurred some thoughts about how schools are supported.

After taking inventory of the back-to-school displays, and noting how my diligent wife and I took care of the majority of supplies a few weeks ago, I had a freak out and called my wife to ask her if there was anything we needed for the first day of school. She said she needed 100-sheet notebooks, but the notebooks on display only made it to 70 pages. A 30-page difference wasn’t good enough for me. Knowing that this popular convenience store is notorious for triggering hoarders, my son and I searched through the columns anyway. After coming up empty, I observed the super-long lines of parents and community members with carts full of supplies, some of them angrily waving printed checklists.

I dropped my basket of light groceries in front of the store and said, “Why do we need all these things again?”

As an educator and parent, I’ve taken a good survey of school supply lists across multiple schools. Some of them read like wishlists while others read like mandates. For parents/guardians/community members, school supply lists feel like giant scrolls that feel more like a cumbersome backdoor school tax on students and families. Yes, it’s bad enough that public schools across the nation are consistently under threat of massive budget cuts (I mean, pick any source). We’re also seeing societal strife play out at the school level, including (but not exclusive to): homelessness, COVID-19, asylum seekers, poverty, and dis- and misinformation plaguing our sources of knowledge.

But if there’s an issue that seems to bring some of this home, it’s school supply lists. If we did school well, none of them would be necessary.

In a better world, schools would have notebooks, sharpeners (the good kind), and calculators for every student and many to spare. There’d be no concerns for binders, loose leaf sheets, or erasers, either, as administrators would have received their boxes by midsummer. Classrooms would have disinfectant wipe dispensers installed, the bathrooms would be functional all year, and the water fountains would have clean drinking water. Art classrooms and physical education classrooms wouldn’t be dependent on parent associations to get supplies that were necessary for their curricula.

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