This week the lovely Irish Parenting Bloggers, my soul sisters (and brothers) (but mostly sisters), have been discussing the annual financial burden of sending your kids back to school, even in a country where most primary (elementary) schools are state run and therefore “free”. I offered to talk a bit about our experience, for the sake of comparison.
This is our third year in the American public school system – something I never expected to encounter at first hand, and a prospect that felt very daunting when Dash entered kindergarten. (Kindergarten is the first year of elementary school for most children here, and they start when they’ve turned five.) Apart from the mystery that was the PTA – that’s the Parent-Teacher Association – I had to navigate the unknown perils of the school supply list.
It was all pretty easy, as it turned out. Of course. You get a list of things to buy before the year starts, and you go to Target or Staples or the supermarket and buy them. In Ireland, cynical me says, the shops would put up the prices of all these things in August, but around here they tend to have at least some of them on sale, and each state even has a tax-free week or weekend at the end of the summer when you can buy children’s clothes and school supplies without the usual added sales tax (that’s like VAT).
Our list this year, just out of interest, looked like this:
- 1 large book bag
- 1-inch white hard binder
- 12 no. 2 pencils, sharpened
- 2 glue sticks
- 4 composition books
- 1 pair of children’s safety scissors
- 4 pocket folders
- 1 box of crayons or coloured pencils (no more than 24)
- 2 small pencil sharpeners with cover
- 1 pack wide-ruled lined paper
There are other things they note would be nice to have donations of, such as copy paper, more crayons, index cards, tissues, and liquid hand soap, but that’s the basic list.
The first year I obsessed over whether we were meant to label each item with his name, and if so whether we had to label every single pencil and crayon or just the box, and so on. This year I just put them all in a bag and brought them in. I don’t actually know whether my son uses the specific items I bought or whether they are all stored together in the classroom and then doled out as the children need them – it doesn’t really matter. I bought the nicer crayons and the brand-name pencils because I like those, but if he ends up using someone else’s not-so-spendy supplies, that’s the luck of the draw.
As far as back-to-school costs go, that’s the lot. Done for about $50. I didn’t count.
Our school doesn’t have a uniform at the moment, though it is being considered. Several of the local public elementary schools do, and I assume it would be something similar – a simple outfit that I could buy in Target or from Land’s End (for instance) depending on the quality I wanted and how much I had to spend. They don’t have crests or whatever it is that made my Irish school uniform so terribly expensive and only available from the secret special room at the back of the second floor in Arnott’s of Henry Street.
Books and workbooks are all provided at school. They never even come home, so I don’t see them and know very little about them. There’s no extra photocopying charge, no not-actually-voluntary contribution, and no extra fundraising commitment. If you join the PTA you can volunteer some hours of work at the used bookstall at the upcoming Labor Day Festival, or help organize the 5k race they do every year, or help out at the Scholastic book fair later in the year, for instance, but it’s not mandatory and it’s easy to help without writing a cheque. (Though cheques are always welcome.)
I’m not counting things my son would need anyway, like new winter shoes and clothes and a coat. He’s pretty well set for the coming season as far as that goes, thanks to my affinity for the thrift store and my habit of stocking up on higher-end things (like a good coat) when end-of-season sales happen. I got him a really nice winter anorak last spring that will do him for the next two years, at least. His backpack is still fine, though he may need a bigger one by next year.
We are designated “walkers” because we live within a mile of the school. If we lived further out, he could take the big yellow school bus. During the year, the teachers will probably send out requests for additional supplies – last year they were always running out of glue sticks and pencils and whiteboard markers. The PTA will run a coat drive when the weather gets colder, and I’ll probably pick up a decent-quality kid’s coat at the thrift store and bring it in, to be donated to a child who might not otherwise be warm and dry all winter. The school provides lunches that can be bought at a reasonable price, and these are free to those who need them. Children can arrive early and eat breakfast at school if that’s arranged for them. There is a limited amount of before- and after-care available, but you have to be lucky and get randomly selected from all the applicants to benefit from that.
Schools vary from district to district, from county to county, and from state to state. You can decide to send your children to private school, of course, or you can choose the location of your home because of the school district it feeds into, if you’re in a position to do so. But our middle-of-the-road school has such luxuries – as any Irish state-funded school would probably see them – as a librarian (sorry, that’s a media specialist), a counsellor, several special education teachers, a psychologist, and dedicated music and art teachers.
There are many things that are far from perfect with the American school system, with my county’s school system, and even, maybe, with our school. But from where I’m sitting, I have to admit that it seems like a pretty good bang for my buck.
If you’re interested in reading more about the cash crunch many Irish parents find themselves in at this time of year, here’s a handy infographic. And take a look at the other contributions to this conversation (I’ll update this list as the week progresses, so come back again):
The Clothesline – It All Adds Up
Wholesome Ireland – School Expenses
The Mama’s Hip – Homeschooling haul and chatter
Learner Mama – Back to school – A costly business
Musings And Chatterings – Crests and costs – starting big school
The Serious Wagon – Back to School Costs
Dreaming Aloud – Changing Gear
My Country Girl Ramblings – Back to School The Hidden Costs
Jazzygal – Back to school costs (a lot)