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Is New York Asking Too Much from Tax Paying Parents?

There was a time when all a parent had to buy for their child, to prepare them for the new school year, was a few notebooks and an assortment of writing/drawing utensils. Well, like the classic Bob Dylan song puts it, “the times, they are a changing.”

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The image above comes from a recent orientation meeting for parents of kindergarten students, at a Bronx school. For new parents or individuals unfamiliar with the ways of prepping for an upcoming school year, this long list can be rather startling. Many reading this come from generations when the usual supply lists were a lot shorter. However parents in New York, and across the nation, are dealing with ever growing supply lists and risings costs to complete them.

Last year, NBC’s the Today Show put a spotlight on this specific issue (Parents paying big bucks for back-to-school supplies). They found that the average American student from grades K-12 were asked to purchase an alarming $100 worth of supplies. “I spent $185 at Kmart for school supplies” says Angeliz Rodriquez-Herrara, a mother of two from Manhattan.

Reading through the above list can be a bewildering experience. One ream of copy paper and a pack of yellow standardized post-it notes?  These are supplies more common in an office building, not a kindergarten class. Also listed are four containers of disinfectant wipes as well as three rolls of paper towel? The need for items like those are understandable, but wasn’t there a time when the purchase of these items was incurred by the schools, to maintain their own facilities? Not by the parents of students?

The real questions seems to be, how much funding for schools does New York have, and where is it used? Here is the New York City Department of Educations official statement (via their website) on how their $21.8 billion operating budget will be used during the 2015-16 school year:

“The Department’s $21.8 billion Operating Budget (the total budget less pension and debt service costs) includes funding for principals, teachers, textbooks and supplies. It covers the cost of standardized tests, after-school programs, school buses, heating and cooling for school buildings, safety, and school lunches.  It pays for central administration and field support offices, which work with schools to provide support and help improve student achievement.”

Even though it states “supplies” there is clearly a discrepancy with how the money is allocated to schools, since many parents are being asked to purchase more supplies than generations passed. It does not seem like there is a lack of funding since New York has a much larger public education budget than states like Illinois ($6.1 billion), and Ohio ($9.9 billion). Though it’s not on par with the funding of a state like California at $68.4 billion (nor should it be). “Teachers aren’t given as much money as they used to get for the classroom” says Eleni Kyriakakis, a substitute teacher in Brooklyn.

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Further making matters more concerning is the information that came out of a study done by the Education Trust, a non-profit organization that promotes high academic achievement. It found that New York had the second highest gap in funding between districts of high and low poverty (FUNDING GAPS 2015). Meaning the children coming from less advantageous economic situations are not getting the assistance they need.

New York is a costly state to live in. New Yorkers pay, on average, $9,718 per year in taxes; which is 39% higher than the national average. Making it the highest tax paying state in the country. Also, New York has three of the top five cities (Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens respectively) with the highest costs of living in the U.S. Average rents in these cities are $2,887, while the cost of owning a home averages at $995,000. Requesting parents in places like these to take on more of the financial load for supplies is a tough sell. So where does the blame lie?

One place blame should not fall is on the teachers. Many of them in these schools are put into cumbersome positions when it comes to having the adequate supplies necessary to educate their students. Manhattan kindergarten teacher Sofia Salazaar explains it saying, “We use all those supplies believe it or not, as the generation’s change the teaching styles have to change with them”. “The lists will change depending on the schools budget needs. Teachers don’t get supplies in all schools.”

While there may be issues on how funding is allocated throughout New York schools, it is still up to the schools themselves to do the best with what they are given. When asked if poor managing of funds could lead to more of a financial strain being put on parents, Salazaar asserted “I’m sure there are some cases in which schools poorly manage their money, buying unnecessary programs that do not benefit students or are barely used.”

However, not all parents are going through the same situation. “My son’s list was ok, just two notebooks, pencils, a folder, hand sanitizer, paper towels and a box of facial tissue”, said Karen Vega, a mother from the Bronx. The inconsistencies in fund distribution,s or how it is managed at her son’s school, actually benefited her.

Pinpointing the root of the problem is difficult. Nonetheless, there seems to be an ongoing dilemma with public school funding allocations and management in New York. And the parents of students are being forced to help carry the responsibility, so they can assure their children an acceptable education.

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