University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

School Supply List: Bring Your Own TP?

In The View from the OEP on August 9, 2017 at 10:47 am


Across the country and throughout Arkansas, parents and their students are wandering through school supply aisles looking for items listed on the school supply lists shared by their local public schools. What are parents expected to purchase and how much will these supplies cost?

School supply lists have been around for a long time.  As a child, picking out new folders, freshly sharpened pencils, a new box of crayons, and a backpack to put them in whispered promises of an exciting year full of learning and fun. As a teacher, tweaking the supply list from the prior year meant re-imagining how well the colored-folder system would work and how those index cards were finally going to be put to good use. Parents, however, might view this task quite differently.

Hunting through crowded aisles for the specified “one red folder with 3 prongs, one purple folder with 2 pockets, one orange folder with 3 prongs AND two pockets…” is not fun, efficient, or equitable for students and their families.


So this got us thinking- what is the deal with these school supply lists? Most schools in the state have the school supply lists for grades K-8 posted somewhere on their website, so we took a look at a sample, and here’s that we found.

Some schools don’t ask for anything.  We found a handful of schools and districts that do not request anything.  These schools stated that the school will provide what students need to learn. Way to go!!

The school supplies listed will cost between $40 and $160.   We found no consistent pattern by grade level: Kindergarten wasn’t more expensive than junior high, and no direct relationship with the level of poverty of students in the school. In some districts, like Bentonville, the lists are consistent by grade level for all schools across the district but in the majority of districts, the items listed for second grade at one school are different from those for second grade at another school.

School lists can be maddeningly specific.  Five folders with specific colors and specific numbers of pockets/ prongs. In one grade mechanical pencils are listed, while other times they are specifically banned. Many school lists were VERY specific about even the BRAND of supplies.  Schools requested “2 packages of Ticonderoga #2 pencils and one pair of Friskars scissors”.  Ticonderoga pencils are great, but they are also WAY more expensive than non-Ticonderoga pencils.  For example: Ticonderoga pencils are $2.24 a dozen, while the store brand is $0.75 for a dozen. Five bucks for a couple dozen pencils may not seem like too big an ask for a year of learning, but surely there are families attending your school who don’t have the extra money to spend on brand-name pencils, particularly if the pencils are, as noted on many lists, going into the ‘community supplies’ for the classroom.

“Please do not put names on any of the supplies. All supplies will be collected by the teacher to be used by the class as needed.”


The listed quantities aren’t available.  You can’t buy just one Dry Erase Marker or the requested one pack of post-it-notes, and glue sticks come in packs of 2 or 4, not 7. So we end up getting a four-pack of dry erase markers, a six pack of post-it-notes, an extra glue stick.  Maybe you are buying supplies for more than one student and the other list also includes a dry erase marker.  Lucky you!  In isolation, this may seem like not a big deal, but it adds up!

The variety of ‘needed’ items is expanding. In addition to the standard pencils, paper, crayons, and folders, many lists include some new ‘Tech’ items.  Headphones, earbuds and flashdrives are listed often, and while we support schools using technology to support student learning, these items are among the priciest items on the lists at $6 or $7 dollars each!  Graphing calculators often appear on the supply lists at middle school and higher, and at $100 each, these are a significant cost for families.

Most school supply lists include some non-instructional items as well: boxes of Kleenex ($1.50), bottles of hand sanitizer ($2), Clorox wipes ($4), and Ziploc bags ($5) are the most common.

Why are schools so specific about the supplies?  It seems to us that many of the items listed may make the classroom easier to manage.  Ticonderoga pencils break less frequently, leading to less disruptions when students need to sharpen them. It is easier to see if everyone has their “red folder” out than their “Math Folder.” And each teacher has his/her own ideas about what students will need to learn best.

While we support teachers having what they need to teach and run their classes smoothly, we think there may be better ways to reach this goal.

Most importantly, the current school supply lists aren’t good for kids.  Think about how quickly the school supply list identifies the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in our schools.  If a student’s family can’t afford to get the supplies requested by the school, he or she walks in the first day of school without the variety of colored folders and Ticonderoga pencils and immediately feels identified.  Even if the student was able to get one of the backpacks generously filled with school supplies by the community, they may not be the “right’ supplies for his/her classroom. This is not the way to start a school year.

But wait! If parents don’t provide these, then teachers have to buy them out of their own pocket- right?


This should not be the case.  In Arkansas, schools spend between $7,000 and $16,000 thousand dollars per student per year!  This is money provided to the districts by taxpayer dollars to support public education.  Districts should make providing the resources that students need, including Kleenex, a basic fiscal commitment.  Teachers, do you think your Superintendent buys supplies for his/her office out of pocket?

We didn’t find any school supply lists asking students to bring toilet paper, but it seems like that may be coming soon if we don’t change the expectation.


School Leaders:

We have some suggestions for options other than parents, individually, buying the 15 or so items on the schools supply list (and driving from one store to another looking for that purple folder with one pocket!).


  1. Think ahead and buy in bulk: It is ridiculous for parents/ guardians to be out trying to find the magic orange folder with three prongs and two pockets- if this is so important- order it for all the kids!  Ordering in bulk costs less, but schools should order the same quality supplies that teachers are requesting.
  2. Make Class Packs: These can be packed with the pre-ordered specifics for each class (maybe including a welcome note from the teacher) and purchased from the school.  Parents who still want to go to the store and get their own supplies can.  Students who qualify for Free/Reduced Lunch can be provided a pack free of charge.
  3. If you are going to ask, be general, have a short list and don’t dictate the brand.  And keep it to things the student is going to use themselves! The lists often indicate that the supplies parents are purchasing will be be put into a communal pool. We think it is fine to have communal supplies, but the school should buy them in bulk.
  4. Do not ask for non-instructional items.  Part of the tax dollars that the school gets goes to supplies and maintenance.  If the school district can’t figure out how to purchase tissue for the students, then they need to take a long hard look at where the money for supplies is going.  Maybe that instructional program that only one teacher uses and hasn’t shown any results for student learning can be non-renewed and the money can go toward supplies.
  5. Request a donation for school supplies for the year- we liked how eStem requested a relatively minimal  ($45) school supply fee.  Parents could pay this optional fee through an online portal or in person at open house. This allows the school to order in bulk and keeps it from impacting the kids in the classroom,  Seriously.  If you are the kid coming in the first day without any supplies- that STINKS.  Don’t put kids in that situation.  Be sensitive.
  6. Partner with your community.  Businesses and community organizations might be willing to provide materials for students to use throughout the year.  You need 100,000 pencils?  Maybe someone in your community can help.


In sum, if your school is requesting supplies, you may be creating a barrier to learning before school even begins.  Think this through, there has to be a better way for students to have the materials they need for a successful school year.  In the meantime, when classroom doors open next week, be sensitive to those students who don’t have a backpack full of listed supplies. They are coming to learn too.



  1. As a building administrator we ask for a small supply fee that would cover the entire school ($30). Ninety percent or more gladly paid some they did not have to shop around. The school bought all needed supplies in the summer based on teacher request. If a family couldn’t pay or wouldn’t pay the school had an activity account to cover the funding. Teachers did all the shopping.
    As a district level administrator one gets deep into school finance. A good portion of funds a school district receives is restricted in how and on what it can be spent, whither it is Federal title funds or state catagorical funds. It is much more complicated than tossing a flat number out and implying districts are fat cats hoarding funds.

    • Thanks for your comment!
      We love how your school handles school supplies! It is a win for families (who save money and don’t have to shop), a win for kids (who get the appropriate supplies they need to learn) and a win for teachers (who are able to get the supplies they need)!
      We understand the complexities of restricted and unrestricted funds, but according to Arkansas’ Annual Statistical Report, 74% of total school funding is unrestricted funds. This was over $8,000 per student in the most recent year available, and the $30 for supplies is less than one-half of one percent of the annual per student unrestricted funding. We don’t think districts are maliciously hoarding funds, but are suggesting that they should follow your school’s example and put the supplies that students need for learning on the list of things that they should cover. Parents and teachers should not be expected to buy these supplies individually.

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