Monday, August 13, 2012

Back to School

So, last night was back to school night at my daughter's school. Keep in mind that this is a private school, which means we pay for this school as well as for a public school program we do not derive benefit from. Regardless, there appears to be a non-free-market failure well beyond the obvious one-for-the-price-of-two situation.

My daughter was on a trip with her mother, brother and sister leaving me the duty (honor and joy in my daughter's mind) of checking in for the year. That privilege includes finding out who my daughter's teacher will be and who else will be in her class and who will be in the other third grade class--vital intel to a third-grader. And of course there is more.

There was the purchase of the school shirt, the purchase of tickets to the end of summer pool party next weekend, and the PTO dues--all of which seems reasonable. But then another task was left to complete. This is a phenomenon that takes various forms but consistently lacks logic. I needed to drop off three items requested ahead of time and purchased by me. In this case for a third grader the scavenger hunt entailed a ream of Xerox printer paper, a box of Ziploc bags, and a cylinder of Clorox wipes. I'm sure generic would have been fine in all cases, but that is not the point (or the point of confusion from my point of view).

I don't bring straws with me to McDonald's. I don't bring sheets to Marriott. I don't bring gauze to the doctor's office. Why am I bringing a few general supplies to the school? How is this efficient?

Adding to the confusion is the fact that some kind of efficiency has been discovered in this process. When I was in third grade, we had to truck down to the store to purchase a wide assortment of supplies for the coming year. The list of necessities always left room for debate: Did glue allow for a glue-stick? Did a paint set mean an eight or a sixteen color palette? Can I convince mom that I need Dukes of Hazard folders rather than the generic multi-colored set? Today the middle man has been removed from this process. All the school supplies the third-grade teachers are planning for each student to need are pre-purchased in bulk by the teachers through the school who we then pay directly. This makes sense. The teacher gets exactly the supplies desired and presumably purchases at a discount. Something similar happens at the school attended by the daughter of a colleague at work. In that case the parent goes to Staples and purchases the pre-selected bag of school supplies. Why not just ship the lot of them to the school? I don't know. Perhaps the just-in-time inventory system of this particular public school won't tolerate the risk of an under or over supply.

Back to my particular mystery. Is it some attempt to build a vague sense of commitment on the part of parents that they are made to contribute some token amount of supplies? Some how I doubt it is that well thought through.


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