Afterthoughts: Supplies, Demanded

Who is balancing our budgets so badly that schools can’t afford to provide pencils?

Photo: Linny Morris


I fondly remember my first lunch box. It was turquoise plastic with an image of Jabberjaw, a 1970’s cartoon shark. Back-to-school shopping was simple then, but something has shifted. Island parents now make the news, stampeding to Fisher Hawaii with their back-to-school lists.

Curious what they are being asked to purchase, I picked up a random sampling of these lists, and as I read through them, I was puzzled. 

Handsoap and paper towels? Freezer bags and rulers, dry-erase markers? Granted, the kids probably ate the glue and crayons, so those are gone, but do we really need new scissors every fall? What happened to last year’s? Why does an incoming student need to trot to class with his or her very own flutophone and supply of Lysol wipes? 

Illustration: Jing Jing Tsong

Some of the materials requested seem suspiciously like they are destined for a teacher’s desk. Post-It notes for third graders, for example, or manila folders. Does a 7-year-old really maintain a filing cabinet? But that’s not my point. Teachers and students alike should have their needs taken care of. I’m wondering why, if we have a Department of Education with a huge budget, it can’t provide the pencils and paper towels.

The concept of school-supply lists is not unique to Hawaii, but the burden of is particularly egregious here, because, according to the DOE, 41 percent of Hawaii’s students are classified as economically disadvantaged.

We have what’s referred to as a state-funded educational system, but the bottom line, folks, it’s funded by us. Our citizenry thinks public education is something to be valued and supported—and I agree, it is. Via my state and federal taxes, I’ve chipped in to pay for the public schools. You’ve contributed. The neighbor down the street with no children has paid her share. The guy whose children attend private schools is still helping pay for the public ones. We’ve collectively put this money into our state’s education calabash, a calabash that has $2.4 billion in it, according to the state of Hawaii’s 2007 Superintendent’s Annual Report. (This does not factor in additional spending on construction and maintenance.)

Island school enrollment is around 180,000 students, so divide that into $2.4 billion and you come up with $13,300 that can be spent on each student’s education. (Interestingly, the DOE claims it’s spending $8,533 per student, which suggests the pool of funds is evaporating in the hot sun of bureaucracy.) Figure there are roughly 25 students per class, that’s $332,500 we should have available per classroom. That can pay the rent, the electricity, the teacher’s salary and still have a few bucks left over for some pens. 

Part of our taxes goes toward road repair and maintenance, yet we don’t get photocopied lists from construction crews asking us to buy asphalt and please bring in a hard hat. Their supplies have been budgeted for and purchased so the crews can do their jobs.

If half the energy spent creating and photocopying these school supply lists, and forcing parents to march from Kmart to Wal-Mart in search of the best price on sponges, were instead directed at the Department of Education, inquiring where the heck this $2.4 billion a year is going, maybe we’d be getting somewhere. Parents should not be clutching a supply list—they should be clutching the collars of the DOE’s accountants, demanding some answers.