As the rising price of food, gas and other commodities continues to put the squeeze on local families, many are finding that back-to-school costs are yet another financial burden to bear.
Presented with long lists of school supplies, parents are buying more items than ever for their children's classrooms, including necessities that used to be provided by schools.
While shopping for school supplies at Target with her three children, Lisa Markoff recalls the days when all kids needed for back-to-school was a binder and a box of pencils.
"Now the supply list calls for multiple boxes of Kleenex, Clorox wipes, bottles of hand sanitizer... the list goes on. And that's in addition to the crayons, pencils and paper-type supplies I still have to buy. It will probably be at least $100 in the end."
Every year, hundreds of local organizations collect and distribute school supplies, clothes, and other items to defray the cost of back-to-school for families in need. This year is especially hard, however, because not only is the need for supplies higher than in years past, but many organizations say they are receiving far fewer donations.
John Yaeger of World Vision in Seattle says economic factors have combined this year to create the perfect storm for his organization, with skyrocketing demand for supplies while donations are dropping. "This year has been especially hard for us because the need is much higher, and it's a real need," he says. "It's tough to think that school supplies might become a luxury item for some kids."
Despite the downturn, World Vision has still been able to provide many of Seattle's Title One schools with free backpacks filled with school supplies. Schools qualify as Title One if 70 percent or more of the students qualify for free lunches.
Last Thursday World Vision, in cooperation with Women of Vision, donated 400 backpacks filled with new supplies to students at Concord Elementary in Seattle's South Park neighborhood.
Concord's principal Sandra Scott smiled as she watched the kids pick out their backpacks from the stage in the school gym. After choosing their backpacks first-graders rushed to nearby tables to see what was inside, finding paper, notebooks, crayons and other essentials.
Scott said World Vision has been distributing backpacks at Concord for seven years and that it has been a wonderful benefit to the community. "We have lots of kids here who live in multiple family situations, sometimes there are big families with five or six kids and costs add up really fast."
Reed Slattery of World Vision helped to organize the event and said he hopes that having school supplies taken care of will take one burden off of the families so they can focus on the next thing. "Even though the backpacks are valued at $25, if you are a single mom with two kids that can add up to a lot of money."
World Vision also runs a teacher resource center out of their storehouse in Renton where teachers can "shop" for donated school supplies if their class supplies get low during the year.
Oftentimes, however, when stocks of supplies get low teachers reach into their own pockets to pay for more. Claudia Allen, principal at Montlake Elementary, says she thinks teachers spend at least $500 of their own money every year on items for their classrooms.
"It's a big difference from 15 years ago, when I first started as a principal. Kids would bring a few things but the school provided the rest," said Allen.
Montlake's art teacher, Allen says, has a budget that breaks down to about $10 per child per year for art supplies. Allen says luckily the teacher is wonderful at using recycled materials and is often able to pull off some pretty great projects for the kids.
Rich Wood, spokesperson for the Washington Education Association (WEA) says the last survey done by the WEA several years ago showed that teachers paid an average of $400 a year out-of-pocket for supplies.
The WEA Children's Fund is available to teachers who are members of the WEA to get reimbursed for specific out-of-pocket expenses. Wood said the fund pays for thousands of dollars in supplies, including winter coats.
"The fact is that educators tend to be a very generous group of dedicated people and many don't think twice about spending their own money, but it does highlight the fact that schools are underfunded."
In fact, Wood points out that Washington schools rank only 45th in the nation in terms of average per-pupil spending.
Allen admits it's going to get pretty hard with fixed costs going up for everyone, including the schools. "Ideally the answer would be to fully fund education, but unfortunately no one can agree on what that means."