Sunday, July 16, 2017

Unconventional Wisdom -- School Shopping Lists

First of what may become a series in which I confront from standard opinions that pop up in social media that I disagree with but am not inclined to confront there.

We're getting closer to school beginning, meaning that parents are starting to get shopping lists from schools, and parents are grumbling, and in response we're seeing links to articles like this popping up in social media.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that for families with means, it is not unreasonable for them to do what they can to assist underpaid, overworked teachers in the education of their own children. Parents who grumble about shopping lists are exhibiting an alarming lack of prioritization for education, and if they do this grumbling within their kids' earshot, passing on this poor attitude to their children, which is likely to manifest itself in them not taking their education seriously, making life even more difficult for these underpaid, overworked teachers. The right thing to do is to dutifully complete these shopping lists without complaint, thankful for the opportunity to contribute to our children's education, and maybe throw in something extra, too.

Allow me to object.

First, to establish my credentials, I have done some side job teaching for most of my professional career -- in religious education as well as teaching courses at a for profit college. While I admit that this does not mean I know all the challenges full time teachers face, I don't think I am writing from a place of complete ignorance of them, either.

In the case of public schools, the basic contract we have is that the residents of the area will pay taxes into the system, and the district will provide an education for our children. I understand that many factors interfere with this model, but this is the basic contract. School shopping lists represent passing a portion of this burden on to parents. In my judgement, support should flow from school districts to parents, not the other way around -- parents are taking on the burden of raising the next generation; the rest of us should be helping them.

Now, perhaps there are some gaps that emerge that cannot be addressed through the a lengthy funding system, and I and I believe most parents are happy to pitch in. Or if there are supplies, like hand sanitizer or facial tissues, that may not be explicitly ordered toward education but make the school more comfortable for all involved, especially if one's child is likely to be a heavy consumer of those.

But sending home the same list of supplies every year for parents that includes items necessary for classroom education to buy seems less like covering an emerging gap than an institutionalized passing of the buck. And this I resent. If something is truly necessary to educate our children, then the school district should be supplying it. And if not, then parents shouldn't be emotionally blackmailed into supplying it.

But school districts are already strapped? Are they more strapped than the typical family budget? I understand that making the case for some of these expenses can be difficult; I don't think that justifies emotionally manipulating the families you're supposed to be serving to cover it instead.


I've always suspected there is a bit of a power play going on here. I recall one "back to school night" watching all my daughter's classmates in their families putting the tightly specified supplies (specific brand names, pencils sharpened) in front of their new teachers as if it was some kind of tribute. This person is going to have significant control over our child's happiness for the next nine months; we want to make sure we impress!

And this is before we get to families for whom these lists represent a significant financial hardship. Yes, I know that almost all schools allow for students to avoid / opt out in such cases, but do we really want to put families in a position where they must begin the school year by disclosing their financial difficulties?


So, to summarize, school supply lists:

  • Pass the burden of education from all of us onto parent of school age children.
  • Emotionally blackmail parents into compliance.
  • Establish what I consider to be an unhealthy power dynamic between teachers and families.
  • Exacerbate the suffering of families that are struggling financially.
Again, I do not object, and parents ought to respond, to unexpected needs that emerge in educating our children. And I do not object to helping to furnish the schools with non-education related supplies that make everyone more comfortable.

I do object to institutionalized annual lists of education-related supplies that ought to be supplied by the district, and the emotional blackmail that goes with it.
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