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Send Them a Bouquet of Pencils

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When I stepped out into the crispness of the first 40 degree morning of the season last week, I immediately thought of Tom Hanks in You've Got Mail: "Don't you love... the fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies. I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address." Had Meg Ryan's character in the movie been a teacher, that line would have saved us two laborious hours. No sane educator could have turned down that offer.

Why, you ask? Because this week teachers around the country are no doubt glancing in the drawers and cupboards in their classrooms and discovering that, for the first of what will be many times this school year, their supplies have almost completely absconded. Chewed up, ripped apart, soaked through, stomped on, or, perhaps even lovingly used, the pencils, pens, paper, markers, notebooks, folders, binders, and other fruits of the forest of former trees that they had hauled in during their pre-Labor Day Staples binge have by now been harvested by their students. By next June, they will have paid as much as $2 billion to replenish those stores.

According to a study by the National School Supply and Equipment Association, America's public school teachers spent $1.33 billion of their own money on school supplies and instructional materials during the 2009-2010 school year, an average of $356 per teacher. And that figure was down from 2007-2008 when teachers spent on average $395, and down still further from 2005-2006 when they unloaded a whopping $552 on their classrooms. Of course the federal government hasn't completely ignored this annual sacrifice; they've extended a $250 educator expense income tax deduction since 2002. That's a huge relief for America's real job creators.

When I discuss this issue with people from the rest of the working world (and I now count myself among their ranks, having elected to leave the classroom this year), I pose the question very simply: imagine if your boss told you that tomorrow you had to bring your own pencils, pens, and paper to work. What would you say? Their response is always two words, and they rhyme with suck glue.

But here's the thing: the real reason teachers have to bring their own supplies to school isn't their principals. It's their students. It's their students who come to class unprepared, paperless, pencil-less, point-less. But then here's the other thing: it's not necessarily their students' fault. When families spend $21.35 billion during the back-to-school season, or an average of $606.40 per household (according to a study by the National Retail Federation), it's not surprising that a few boxes of pens slip through the holes in the shopping cart -- especially in low-income communities.

As a society, we deal with this conundrum by organizing backpack drives and by donating on donorschoose.org. And while I would never want to belittle the benevolence of those individuals who engage in such altruism, I can't help but ask: why should our children depend on charity in order to have a chance to succeed?

Why do we accept this? How can we accept this? How can we accept a system in which children have to wait for their parents to get paid in order to buy the poster boards that they need for their science projects -- in which teachers have to collect pencils off of the floor after class in order to have enough to give to the kids who actually need them -- in which students have to steal supplies from each other in order to do their math homework?

The answer is uncomplicated and unambiguous: we can't. So, instead of spending the money on that extra squadron of fighter jets we don't need, we should start setting aside about $10 to $20 billion across federal, state, and local budgets to provide school supplies to our students and their teachers. That's $21.35 billion for students, plus $2 billion for teachers, minus assumed savings from buying in bulk.

And if the emotional argument didn't convince you, then here's a logical one. Some will say that if we just give away supplies, our children will never learn to be accountable for them. Not so. Quite the opposite in fact. As a teacher, it's very difficult to tell a kid that he's getting a zero for not having a pencil if he says that his parents can't afford to buy him any. However, if we provide each child with two pencils on Monday morning and one of them comes in pencil-less on Tuesday morning, we know that the child is most likely to blame. When we put pencils directly into students' hands, we also place the responsibility for those pencils squarely on their shoulders.

Furthermore, truth be told, school supply lists often amount to regressive tax bills in that they place a far heavier burden on low-income families than they do on those with greater means. Now some might cry, "Socialism!" and complain about us forcing the same school supplies on all children. Again, not so. There would be nothing to stop families from sending their kindergarteners to school with, for example, diamond dust instead of glitter. Still others might argue on top of that that the children who have glitter instead of diamond dust will be bullied. But that begs the question: would they really be bullied any less than if they had no glitter at all?

Of course, ideally, we would have enough diamond dust to go around. But because we don't, let's start with something humbler. Let's send every teacher in America a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils. Then let's have their students use those pencils to write letters to the President, to Congress, to anyone who might listen to their cries for crayons. And if those folks ignore them, then we'll teach the children two simple words that will be sure to get their attention:

Suck glue.