School Supplies... A Necessity?

In my previous post on going back to school, I wrote that in Quebec, parents have to buy school supplies for their children. At the same time, parents have to shell out money for text books and school trips. This means that in the third week of August, parents are expected to spend about $200 per child, and that does not include any purchases for clothes.

In response to this post, I received this comment from Fidel Fuentes on my Facebook page:

"The whole thing is a bloody disgrace. Way back when I was living in Ontario I was going to a Catholic School. The school bought all student supplies in bulk. This meant that if I wanted a pencil, note books, art supplies, dictionaries, school books etc., all I had to do was go to the back of the class, open a drawer and take out what I needed. The parents of poor kids didn't have to choose between sending the kids to bed hungry in order to buy school supplies. The whole things makes me sick."

I found this comment indeed humbling. How soon we forget. Both my husband and I were raised by our mothers on limited resources. In my case, my mother would have had to come up with the 1970s equivalent of $400 for me and my brother. What would my mother have done? Like many single mothers, she had a fairly good job, but coming up with that kind of money would have involved saving over a sustained period of time.

I decided to look into what a single working mother could do.

My first stop was the vice-principal at my daughter's school. VP Pierre Lemay told me that coming up with the money for some families was indeed difficult. I asked him if the school accepted donations of unused school supplies from previous years. He said that this would depend on what my daughter's class needed and he directed me to my daughter's teacher. Lemay also told me that there were some area organizations that provided school supplies, but suggested that I phone the CLSC (area healthcare and social services centre), where they would be able to give me further information.

On my lunchhour, I contacted the CLSC social worker, who in turn referred me to
Jeunesse au Soleil or the Sun Youth Organization on St-Urbain St. I spoke with an adviser there who was making up school supply packages to be given out on next Tuesday. However, he did point out that supplies were limited, and that they were strictly for people who used the Sun Youth food bank. I asked him how single-parent families managed.

"It's a dire situation for many. People on social assistance are given extra money for the back-to-school period, but it's not enough," he said. "And there are still a lot of parents not on social assistance who can't afford  school supplies."

One of the other organizations that the Sun Youth adviser referred me to was the Welcome Hall Mission (Mission bon acceuil) in St-Henri. On August 16 and 17 of this year, the organization handed out 2,200 packages of school supplies, footwear and clothing, worth $170,000. In addition, 40 refurbished computers were given away. This is the ninth year running for the WHM's Head Held High event, which is slated as Montreal's largest school supply distribution.

The other referral I received was for Fondation Maman Dion (Celine's mom). This year, the Foundation also gave out 2,200 packages to students in 72 school boards across Quebec. The package includes $200 worth of school supplies from BuroPLUS and a $200 coupon for clothing at L'aubanerie. To be eligible, parents must apply before the April deadline. Applications are reviewed by a selection committee made up of retired teachers.

It's great to see that these organization's exist, but there's one thing that I'm sure would put off a lot of working single parents and low-income families. These are charity organizations that receive funding through corporate and private donations. I believe that many families are still too proud to take handouts, and as my Facebook friend suggested in his comment, some families might cut corners on necessities so that they can buy school supplies. It is indeed a sad state of affairs if an adult earning a living wage cannot afford school supplies for his/her children.

Schools supplies are an essential part of a child's education. So why don't our taxes pay for them?

Furthermore, why are families paying retail prices for school supplies in Quebec when the provincial government can purchase the whole thing in bulk, through a competitive* tender process, at a fraction of the cost?

I'd love to know what you think reader...Should the government pay for school supplies or should parents foot the bill?

*by competitive I mean the best price/quality ratio. This does not mean your friend who owns a chain of office supply stores.

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Anonymous | September 10, 2010 at 12:34 PM

Although I could write for hours on this subject, I just want to make one comment....the principal of the school should know his or her clientele. They should ask the teachers not make ridiculous demands...for example: a child does not need 12 jumbo glue sticks at any age.....and they should ask the teacher to provide them with a cost of the school list which they give out to the kids.
The principal knows which kids can afford to pay and who can't. My company has worked with Sun Youth and with many principals in the past to make sure that no kids go to school without the proper, and I use the word proper here (meaning not dollar store quality), school supplies.
It takes a little extra work and some effort but there are people who are there to help those in need in Montreal (as you mentioned above).
Jimmy Zoubris

Heather | September 10, 2010 at 1:09 PM

I'm so glad that you company and others support Sun Youth, and I agree that a lot of the school supplies that we buy go unused. For instance, this year my daughter had to bring a box of 24 pencils, but I doubt that she will need all 24. But school supplies are a necessity that no child can go without, so why aren't our taxes covering this?

Maryann | September 12, 2010 at 2:37 PM

Hi, Heather.

One of the primary schools I attended in the 80s (in Laval) also bought all supplies in bulk and parents paid the bulk price. The school would package it all up by grade and the parents would show up at the school a few days before school started, fork over the cash, and collect the supplies. In my opinion, that was a far better system than sending parents all over hell's half acre looking for the exact shade of magenta Duo-Tang the teacher has asked for.

My daughter just started kindergarten, and the teachers bought all the supplies themselves. Parents had to cough up $70, plus a $5-dollar "special project fee," whatever that is. I can't say if that's excessive or not, since this is our first year, but I can see how these costs would add up, particularly for families with two or three children in the system and limited means.

I read a column in the Gazette the other day by a lady whose kid's list included rolls of toilet paper. Someone else objected to having to purchase those stupid punctured tennis balls for the chair legs...every single year. And I agree with Anonymous: 12 jumbo glue sticks is ridiculous. How much gluing can one kid really do, even in the course of a full school year? When my turn comes, I probably won't make myself popular with teachers by sending in four glue sticks instead of 12, but tough toenails. Common sense doesn't just happen. Sometimes it needs to be imposed!

Great blog, Heather, as usual.


Johanna | September 12, 2010 at 9:53 PM

We had to provide only three glue sticks and even that number made me wonder.

On the first day of kindergarten for my son, (presumably after everyone had purchased their kids' school supplies), my son's teacher told us that it didn't matter if we couldn't buy the quantities required on the school list at once (e.g., if we were able to buy only one pack of markers instead of two), that she would simply send us a note through our child's "agenda" when supplies were running low. It occurred to me then that for low-income parents this would have been useful information to have before the first day of school.

Also, the $20 dollar fee for school outings at my son's school, to be paid at the beginning of the year, is optional (and it clearly says so on the school supply list). I assume that the number and type of outings are adjusted according to how much money the school collects. That seems an excellent system to me.

And what on earth is a Duo-Tang (we had to pay the school for them, but my son hasn't brought one home yet)? I really will have to google it now ...


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