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Back-to-School Costs Soar, Burdening the Poor

From binders and backpacks to USB drives and other gadgets, ballooning back-to-school supply lists are pinching poor families' budgets and creating what some see as a have and have-not public education system.

"When it comes to things like school supplies, those are the things that can make or break your budget," said Robyn Eastwood, assistant director of development and external affairs at Project Hope, a Boston-based organization that helps low-income mothers. "The cost of everything keeps going up…. Then it makes everything else a struggle."

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Experts say school districts now have less money for supplies, forcing them to rely more on parents for items such as markers and construction paper, cleaning supplies, tissues, copy paper and printer ink. While this is a hassle for middle-class parents, it's a much bigger burden for poor families, who already struggle just to outfit their own kids for school.

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"At this moment, it's a definite stretch," said Rhonda Maloney, a Project Hope client with two kids in school and one in college who works part-time as a medical secretary. Maloney might have to buy a graphing calculator instead of paying the electric bill. "It's kind of just like a pinching game. I try to pay the most important things first … but when it comes to going back to school, things kind of go downhill," she said.

"School budgets are tight [and] the list of things that students are being asked to supply is expanding," said Jim McGarry, president and CEO of the Education Market Association (formerly the National School Supply and Equipment Association).

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Kim Rueben, a senior fellow with the Tax Policy Center, said that happens a lot when states and schools have had budget cuts. To avoid layoffs, districts will try to cut spending anywhere else they can, she said. "Part of that was cutting supplies."

Organizations that provide things such as pencils, binders and backpacks for kids whose parents can't afford them say the need is growing because parents have to spend more on classroom supplies.

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An annual survey conducted by Huntington Bank finds that a backpack and school supplies for a middle-school student this year will run parents about $312, up more than $100 from last year — the large jump due mainly to a more expensive calculator. (Huntington Bank compiles its lists based on required supplies at schools in the states where it operates.) Outfitting a high school student will run just over $350, up from $330 last year.

"Families are having difficulty, in some cases, feeding and providing food," said Dave Smith, executive director of The Kids in Need Foundation, which works with companies such as Target and charities to distribute backpacks filled with the essentials for low-income kids. "School supplies are clearly not at the top of that list, and we know that."

This year, Boston-based nonprofit Cradles to Crayons expects to distribute 71,000 backpacks filled with supplies to its partner organizations, up from almost 53,000 last year.

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"Frankly, that is scratching the surface of the need," said founder and CEO Lynn Margherio. Cradles to Crayons evaluated Census data for Philadelphia, one of the areas it serves, and found that nearly one in five kids under the age of 13 live in poverty.

Aside from schools asking parents to buy communal supplies, technology is another culprit behind the increasing cost. "People are asking for USB drives and things like that," said Darrell Bulmer, spokesman for Seattle-area nonprofit Hopelink. "There's a new expectation."

That technology, more and more, "is a requirement in order for young people to participate," said Dan Cardinali, president of dropout-prevention group Communities In Schools. "School supplies are a great example … of barriers that preclude them from being able to break the cycle of poverty."

Maloney said even though her kids will get backpacks through Project Hope donated by Cradles to Crayons, she still has to spend about $100 on a calculator for her 16-year-old, plus $100 or so worth of additional required supplies. "Things will get overlooked because I need money for them," she said.

In many cases, teachers help fill the gap. A survey conducted by the Education Market Association last year found that public school teachers spent, on average, $149 of their own money buying school supplies and another $138 buying things like tissues, wipes and paper towels in the 2012-2013 school year.

Maryia Barone, a teacher at a charter school in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, said her low-income students were most likely to come in without pricier, but critical, items such as binders. "When that happens, teachers wind up paying for that out of their own pocket," said Barone, who estimated she'll spend about $100 of her own money this year.

"It can hurt them socially because they don't have what the other kids have and they know it … and it hurts them in the classroom," Barone said, when kids don't have notebooks to write down their assignments.

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Even with piecemeal efforts by nonprofits and individuals, experts say the bigger picture is troubling. "The quality of your education shouldn't vary with your ability to pay," said Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of education and history at New York University. "This is a shared responsibility, regardless of the choices that individual parents and families make about their education …. We're losing the public in public education."

Cardinali said expecting lower-income parents to shoulder more of the cost for public school can lead to a two-tier educational experience that shortchanges their kids.

"They lose a sense of belonging. They are, right from the start, set apart," he said. "It materially compromises their ability to learn."

Elizabeth Pitula, who teaches at a charter school in New York City, sees struggling parents spend money they don't have to shield their kids from the effects of poverty on their education. "Poverty hides in a lot of unusual ways," she said. "I have students who are homeless but come in every day in full uniform."

Pitula said she spends about $200 of her own money each year to make sure her students all get the same experience in the classroom. "I tell people I'm a teacher because I believe in democracy, and you can't have a democracy where you educate people differently based on class," she said.

By Martha C. White, NBC News