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This was not my finest year for shopping for school supplies.
This was not my finest year for shopping for school supplies. (Photo: shutterstock.com)
Got one of these? Not me.
Got one of these? Not me. (Photo: shutterstock.com)

Have standardized school supply lists simplified your shopping?

Three years ago, Milwaukee Public Schools decided -- for better or for worse -- to standardize its school supplies lists by grade level. 

It was a move made by many districts, hoping to rein in requests made to parents in high-poverty districts. After all, if nearly 90 percent of your kids are poor enough to qualify for free lunch, is it fair to ask their parents to drop $40, $50, $75 on school supplies and classroom donations?

The problem I found when I spoke to some teachers in the summer of 2011 and since is that the supply lists aren’t always appropriate, leaving teachers with stacks of a useless item and the complete absence of a necessary one (let the bartering begin!).

In those cases, parents have wasted cash and the burden of paying for some supplies has simply shifted to teachers, who typically already invest plenty in their classrooms.

All this was spinning in my brain yesterday as I stepped into an area big box store to try and tackle our school supply shopping.

I said I was "running in," naively thinking I could wrap up my two lists in 10-20 minutes. Instead, it ended up taking a fair bit of time, mostly because some items were near the front in a big, completely randomly organized display, others were toward the back with the office supplies, some were in health and beauty (we needed hand sanitizer and cotton balls), others with paper products in the opposite corner.

Clearly this store wanted to make sure parents augmented their total bill by forcing them to pass, with children, through toy aisles, big bins of DVDs and video games, etc. So much for any savings that a uniform supply list might bring.

The other challenging part is that my kids go to a specialty school that does not use the standardized supply list, which would result in many items going unused and teachers ponying up for lots of things, from those cotton balls and hand sanitizer to paper plates and napkins and more.

I’m fine with our teachers’ "wish list" -- that’s what they have to call it because they can’t demand these items, which are not on the official list. I don’t want to spend on stuff my kids won’t use and I don’t want our teachers to have to make up the difference. But the fact that I needed four specifically colored folders did not make things easy.

That’s because at this ginormous store, overflowing with paper goods and school supplies of all kinds, had nary a yellow folder. Lots of different colors, lots of folders with Minions and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and other characters, folders with prongs, folders with no prongs, two-pocket folders, four-pocket folders, matte cardboard, heavier glossy cardboard, flexible plastic folders. Green, blue, pink, orange folders. NOT. ONE. YELLOW. FOLDER.

Bless our teachers, they’ve compiled very specific lists. But, a three-pack of glue sticks? Well, I see two-packs and four-packs. A four-pack of a specific brand of sponges? Nope, they come in three-packs and six-packs. Luckily my kid was there to encourage me to buy the bigger ones, because the classroom ran out last year.

And don’t get me started on pricing. All the stores hawking school supplies have some items priced super inexpensively to draw you in, and all of them seem to pick different stuff to price low. So, I guess if you had endless time -- and a tankful of gas -- you could make a circuit and compare all the different prices and then retrace your steps buying each item at the store offering the lowest price. But, if you have that time you likely don’t have kids and don’t need school supplies.

So, theoretically, I probably could’ve found all this stuff for less money. I paid more than I expected. And wrestling it all from the confounding grips of the Titanic-sized store was more time consuming and frustrating than expected. But, now, all that’s left is to write the classroom donation checks and then I’m done.

Oh, except that I need to go out and find one, single, solitary, yellow, folder.

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