SAN JOSE -- As a teacher for the past 24 years, Cheryl Osborne knows that back-to-school for many families means shopping for binders, uniforms, calculators and athletic shoes.
And like many others in her profession, Osborne, who teaches honors science courses at Christopher High School in Gilroy, is also rushing to fill up on supplies for the coming school year. Classes start in nine South Bay and Peninsula school districts this week, with nearly all public schools resuming by the end of August.
While her colleagues have always bought items such as multiplication table posters to enhance their classroom walls and kits for elementary science experiments and art projects, a state law passed last year bans schools from requiring parents to provide or pay for supplies. AB 1575, which took effect Jan. 1, means that Osborne can't depend on parents for materials and will shell out even more of her own money to supplement her classroom budget.
Resulting from the settlement of a lawsuit against the state, the law reinforces the California Constitution's guarantee of a free public education. With few exceptions, it prohibits schools from charging fees for classroom items and activities and from requiring students to buy anything -- from 25-cent pencils and $5 binders to $350 field trips and $500 football uniforms.
It may be a new law, but Osborne said the teachers she works with have been aware of the case for several years. And Osborne said she agrees with the outcome, even though it means she'll have to furnish more supplies.
"Kids are entitled to a free public education, so they shouldn't have to contribute anything," Osborne said while shopping in North San Jose on Saturday at one of her favorite haunts for school supplies -- the Resource Area For Teaching, or RAFT.
Founded in 1994, the nonprofit serves 10,000 educators each year, offering thousands of items from posters, plastic tubing and pipettes to books, basketballs and foam core boards. RAFT leverages corporate donations of supplies, manufacturing by-products and technology to provide hundreds of items to educators at affordable prices.
On Saturday, Osborne, who teaches biology, anatomy and physiology, bought $32 worth of items at RAFT. Included were magnets, easel paper, fabric markers and paints for students to use on T-shirts to outline their digestive systems. Earlier in the day, she had stopped by Staples, where she'd spent about $100 during a school supplies sale for teachers. Osborne estimates she annually spends between $600 and $1,000 of her own money on materials, but it may be more this year.
"I'll have to see how it pans out," she said, adding that newer teachers are hit harder because they're just establishing their careers and classrooms. But veteran teachers like herself can bank on some supplies they may already have on hand.
Previously, teachers issued lists of required supplies for middle and high school and recommended ones for elementary school. Some PTAs in higher-income areas offered parents the option of ordering a package of supplies needed for each grade level, so parents could skip the rush to Office Depot or Target.
In Osborne's case, her yearly syllabus includes a list of materials students will need for her courses. Yet she always adds a note saying any student who cannot afford the items -- from binders to folders, rulers or highlighters -- can get them from her or their other teachers. She said only a handful of the 150 to 200 students she annually instructs ask for the donated items.
Debbie Eitner, a technology teacher at Monroe Middle School in San Jose, said she understands the reason behind the law: many families cannot afford the cost of materials on a regular basis. She already spends about $1,000 annually of her own money on supplies -- hundreds already this summer at RAFT -- and expects the new law will mean more.
But, she said, "I want to make sure all of my students have access to everything they need to be successful," so she's prepared to stock extra classroom supplies like USB drives, headphones, pens and pencils that parents would have previously bought.
Counting on parents
Yet with the new law, teachers say they will depend heavily on donations from parents, PTAs and other groups to help them get by. "Wish lists" of items they hope parents will help them buy are commonly posted online on school websites, handed out in fliers sent home with students -- or presented directly to parents on "Back to School Night."
Veteran schoolteacher Gracie Cortez, who was at RAFT buying $32 worth of thesauruses and boxes to organize books for her second-grade class at Empire Gardens Elementary School in San Jose, said she has never required parents to pay for supplies. But like other teachers, she said she will accept donations to her classroom from parents.
"Sometimes parents will approach me on their own and say, 'Are there things you need?' And usually we ask for something like Kleenex, hand sanitizers or wipes."
Magdalena Fittoria, principal at Barron Park Elementary School in Palo Alto, was shopping at RAFT for books -- a package of five books cost only 50 cents -- to help out a new second-grade teacher at the school. She said her staff is aware of the new law.
"We are a public school system that cannot require that," she said. "And we practice that consistently,'' she said, noting that buying items in bulk is a great cost-saver.
But she also said that the PTA asks parents to donate or contribute to the school, and all schools in the Palo Alto Unified School District are helped by Palo Alto Partners in Education, a nonprofit foundation that raises funds to enhance education at each school.
"We want parents to donate or contribute, but one-third of our families are socioeconomically disadvantaged," said Fittoria of her school's demographics. "So we work as a community to raise the funds we need."
While some public schools have begun the fall term already, the majority start in late August. Below is a list of start dates for districts in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.
SANTA CLARA COUNTY
Tuesday: East Side Union High
Wednesday: San Jose Unified
Thursday: Morgan Hill, Palo Alto
Aug. 19: Cambrian, Campbell Elementary, Campbell Union High, Cupertino, Franklin-McKinley, Fremont Union High, Loma Prieta, Los Gatos elementary, Los Gatos-Saratoga Union High, Milpitas, Mountain View-Los Altos Union High, Mountain View-Whisman, Oak Grove, Santa Clara, Saratoga
Aug. 20: Lakeside, Moreland, Sunnyvale (grades 6 and 7)
Aug. 21: Evergreen, Los Altos, Mount Pleasant, Orchard, Sunnyvale (grades K-5 and 8), Union
Aug. 22: Gilroy
Aug. 26: Berryessa, Luther Burbank
Aug. 28: Alum Rock
SAN MATEO COUNTY
Tuesday: Jefferson Union High
Wednesday: Court and community schools, Regional Occupational Program, San Mateo Union High, South San Francisco
Aug. 20: Sequoia Union High
Aug. 21: Jefferson Elementary, La Honda-Pescadero, Las Lomitas, San Mateo County Office of Education special education
Aug. 22: Bayshore, Brisbane, Menlo Park, Ravenswood,
Aug. 26: Cabrillo, Redwood City, Portola Valley, Woodside
Aug. 27: Burlingame, Hillsborough
Aug. 28: Pacifica, San Bruno Park, San Carlos, San Mateo-Foster City
Sept. 3: Millbrae
Sept. 11: Belmont-Redwood Shores