Public Schools – In Need of Serious Change

Back To School season is here! 

It’s one of the few special times of the year that marketers cannot overextend, although they have tried. We accept Halloween candy appearing in the aisles as soon as Christmas in July ends and non-stop Christmas movies and music beginning the week before Halloween, but nobody wants to see back-to-school ads on the Fourth of July. Sure, the school summer vacation may be an agricultural anachronism that disproportionately affects just about everyone, but we cherish every day of it, nonetheless. Nobody puts our summer traditions in a corner!

[And yes, I did the math, something can literally have a disproportionate impact on everybody.]

When the time is right, however, when we begin to notice that the sun is setting earlier and football season is about to start, we embrace the back-to-school spirit and the marketing that accompanies it. My personal favorite is the 1996 Staples “most wonderful time of the year” commercial.  

Humming a happy tune, we head out or online to do our back-to-school shopping.

Back-to-school shopping has changed.

Way, way back in my day, back-to-school shopping primarily was about clothes – sensible, presentable clothes. Some nice, clean, well-priced shirts and pants and then over to the shoe store for a durable pair of Stride Rite shoes. Maybe mix a couple of colored shirts in with the white shirts this year – it was the 60s after all. 

At some point, having the “right clothes” became a much more important part of the back-to-school shopping experience for some people, but that’s a different social issue than the one I’m addressing today.

Back-to-school shopping wasn’t all clothes, of course. For a time, it meant picking out the perfect lunchbox and thermos set. Later, that became getting the right pencil case and replacing last year’s green canvas school bag because well, they just didn’t last more than one school year. 


When I started 7th grade at Boston Latin, it was a trip into downtown Boston and Mickey Finn on the corner of Washington and West for the long, brown, canvas drawstring bag all the fashionable sixies used to lug our huge pile of books throughout the city. Think overstuffed laundry or gym bag. 

It was also at Mickey Finn that I purchased my first pair of high-top Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars – purple, no less. Eventually, I discovered the Brattle Book Shop a couple of doors up West St, which consumed countless hours of my misspent youth. And Bailey’s old-fashioned ice cream parlor at the Boston Common end of this amazing little street where Lisa and I spent time after college when we both worked in downtown Boston.  But I digress. 

By the time my daughter started first grade in September 2000, “school supplies” were already a big part of the back-to-school shopping experience – as evidenced by the Staples ad. 

The August letter announcing her class assignment for the upcoming year also included a fairly lengthy list of the required and recommended materials she should have with her on the first day of school. Much like the jam-packed week of tightly scheduled “activities” she had since she was a toddler, this was all very new to me. 

Sure, we had to bring our own 3-subject or 5-subject notebooks to school. And in high school, the “bookstore” (i.e., a closet in the basement that opened a few minutes on occasion) sold a limited amount of school supplies emblazoned with the school’s name – like the laminated folders that must have been bought in bulk prior to the school colors changing years before.  


But the city provided the essentials, starting in Kindergarten with the box of big primary color crayons, paste, construction paper, and sturdy metal scissors. We progressed to those green “Boston Public Schools” pencils that we chewed, wooden rulers, the small notebooks with the brown (dark or light) covers that we filled, and scratch paper – lots of scratch paper. Each classroom had a pencil sharpener screwed to the wall. 


The box of class notes, homework, and old tests that I recycled recently suggests that I rarely used a pen, even through high school. Do you know what damage a leaking pen would do in the pocket of one of those carefully selected school shirts or what damage a pocket protector would do to a reputation? No pens. 

The textbook we used for U.S. History in 1976 was published in 1964 and the science labs had no electricity, but we had plenty of paper and pencils. 

Personal Shopping to Neighbors Helping Neighbors to
School Funding

At some point, it became commonplace to see a box or bin in the front of the office supplies store where you could donate supplies to local classrooms. Those same stores offer discounts to local educators. 

Now, national news outlets run stories reporting on (i.e., encouraging contributions to) teacher wish lists on Amazon.

Each day last week, my inbox contained e-mails from Donors Choose, an organization whose mission is to “make it easy for anyone to help a teacher in need.” Teachers submit projects to Donors Choose and the Donors Choose team costs out the materials needed, posts the project to their website, and sends e-mails to people like me who might be interested in contributing to it. 

I came across Donors Choose in late 2019 after a conversation at a conference with some Boston Public Schools teachers sparked my interest in supporting the elementary school I attended. The Boston Latin School Alumni Association spearheads a fundraising effort that would be the envy of most colleges, but my elementary school not so much. Donors Choose was one of the donation options listed on the school’s website. 

According to the information provided on the Donor’s Choose website, as of August 13, the BPS elementary school I attended, now a PK-5 school serving approximately 500 students, has raised $380,546 dollars over the years funding 532 individual projects. 

Mather - DC

And the search for school funds doesn’t stop with teachers. 

School superintendents I know list fundraising as one of their primary activities and responsibilities. 

The “Get Involved” page on school websites now includes “grant writing” along with supervision of lunch and/or recess, mentoring, tutoring, office assistance before and after school, and translation/interpretation as ways that community members can directly help out the school. 

Something’s broken.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a PTA bake sale. All of these approaches are great ways to raise money for supplemental materials and activities – but not for the bare necessities, the fundamentals required to sustain a high-quality learning environment. 

The View from the Top Down is the Same

In the discussion above I looked at school funding from the micro-level, but a macro-level look offers the same picture of a broken system.

My career in large-scale assessment was itself the result of school funding woes – my newly acquired position as director of testing and evaluation for the Portland, Maine Public Schools was eliminated in the fallout of a fracas over a local property tax referendum and the school budget. 

Still here in Maine, this year the state was able to meet its statutory obligation to fund 55 percent of K-12 public education costs for the first time since the referendum was passed in 2004, and only because of the unprecedented influx of federal relief money.

One of my first gigs as an independent consultant in the mid-1990s was to serve as an expert witness (for the state) in a school funding lawsuit in New Hampshire. Nearly three decades later, the same legal battle over funding of New Hampshire’s public schools continues. 

The two assessment programs that defined the first part of my career in large-scale assessment, KIRIS and MCAS, were themselves a byproduct of school funding lawsuits and subsequent education reform acts in Kentucky and Massachusetts, respectively.

The other assessment program with which I am most often identified, NECAP, was a product of NCLB. Throughout its lifespan, NCLB exemplified the constant battle between school accountability and funding Title 1, the federal government’s largest regular K-12 school funding program.

School funding is broken. 

As I wrote in a recent post, Americans are very good at temporary fixes, workarounds, and treatments that alleviate symptoms, but we tend to fall short at solving core problems. The aforementioned school funding initiatives are great examples of our ingenuity. But schools and teachers scrambling for spare pocket change and relying on the kindness of strangers can’t go on indefinitely. We need to make adequate school funding a reality.

It’s simple. If we believe that public education and high-quality instruction is critical to the future of the United States, then figuring out how to adequately fund public schools sooner rather than later is a core problem we cannot afford not to solve. 

Header Image by Angela from Pixabay  

Mickey Finn image from Boston Landmarks Commission research files, Collection 5210.006, City of Boston Archives, Boston  

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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