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State program aims to bring equity, ease cost of school supplies for families

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The new school year may bring excitement and anticipation for teachers and students. But it can also bring another financial burden to local families and educators — school supplies.

For years, public school teachers have had to purchase extra school supplies to help those who could not afford everything.

Dana Shishido is a third grade teacher at an Oʻahu school receiving federal support for the socio-economic background of its student population. Although some funding goes toward school supplies for students, Shishido says that throughout her 33-year career, she's always had to use her own money to purchase more.

"I spend on average, probably at the low end is about $500," Shishido tells HPR. "That's for the supplies. Also, maybe professional development, and then sometimes some online programs that you may need to use."

The most she's ever had to spend was $1,500 when she first started teaching. Back then, Shishido's salary was $29,000.

"For the students that come in with nothing — you can see it in their faces, they're a little embarrassed," she said. "And for a young one to have to make up an excuse that — 'Oh, well, I think we're going to get it later.' Or 'my mom says we need to wait till she gets her paycheck.' Or 'my mom and dad say we don't have enough money.' A child should not have to worry about that — just like as in their meals."

Now, inflation has hit school supplies — along with everything else. Retail analysis firm DataWeave estimates the price of about a dozen supply items rose on average 15% compared to last year.

And costs are much higher for families in rural parts of the state.

"The closest, let's say, Walmart or Target or any grocery story, really, is over an hour away — one way," said Wilma Roddy, principal of Naʻalehu Elementary on Hawaiʻi Island. "The impact that has on our families, we all know that the cost of gas is expensive. Food is expensive. And then school supplies — everything is just on the rise."

Naʻalehu Elementary is also a Title I school, with nearly its entire student population needing free or reduced-priced meals.

The Legislature and Gov. David Ige approved $800,000 from the general fund for a two-year pilot program to subsidize school supplies. That helped roughly 8,000 students in 20 Title I schools across the state receive school supplies for free this year.

State Sen. Dru Kanuha introduced the bill creating the pilot program. He tells HPR he has been working on providing relief on school supply purchases for rural communities since 2018.

While past efforts failed at the Legislature due to budget concerns and the COVID-19 pandemic, Kanuha says his legislative colleagues unanimously agreed the program was needed in the last session.

"This helps families, it helps teachers in these rural communities that would otherwise have to travel extreme distances just to find pencils, or markers, or backpacks," Kanuha said. "Ultimately, this is a program that I hope to continue to create better working environments for our keiki to thrive in."

Kanuha, who is running unopposed in this year's election, says he wants to make the program permanent.

During the program's two-year trial, the state Department of Education will be analyzing and reporting the effectiveness of the program to the Legislature. Kanuha tells HPR he is looking forward to reading the department's findings. He anticipates the DOE will make recommendations to expand the program — possibly beyond Title I schools. But he acknowledges the budgetary process may pose a challenge.

At Naʻalehu Elementary, Roddy says teachers and parents alike were overjoyed when they heard they'll receive school supplies for free this year. But she hopes this program will continue, so it can help create more equity for her students.

"Cost of living is not going to decrease. And I don't anticipate that our socio-economic status is going to change for all of our families," said Roddy. "While it's great to have this year, I hope it's something they're going to consider for our students to level that playing field, and equity for years to come."

Casey Harlow is an HPR reporter and occasionally fills in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Contact him at charlow@hawaiipublicradio.org or on Twitter (@CaseyHarlow).
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