More immediately, Mayor Michael Nutter hopes the Philadelphia Educational Supplies Fund will raise $500,000 by Oct. 15 for district, charter and Roman Catholic schools. More than $300,000 has already been donated by the city and local philanthropists.
"People want to help, and I think we should give them that opportunity," Nutter said.
The cash-strapped public school system allots only $100 per teacher for supplies for the year. Many instructors end up paying much more out of pocket, or turning to crowd-funding sites like DonorsChoose.org, to provide even basic necessities like paper and paper towels.
The fundraising effort comes as city and state lawmakers get ready to return from their summer recesses and debate several revenue proposals for the struggling district, one of the largest in the country. The system is seeking about $221 million to restore programs and recall about 2,100 laid-off employees.
Proposals include a local cigarette tax, city sales tax increase and selling off school property, but there is little consensus. Meanwhile, the state is withholding $45 million in aid until teachers agree to a contract with significant concessions.
Public schools opened for 134,000 students Monday with smaller staffs, huge class sizes and a dearth of supplies in some buildings.
Parent Catherine Collins said her daughter brought 40 pounds of supplies to her fifth-grade class at the Masterman School in response to wish-list requests from teachers and administrators.
"We're used to having to do a lot more because Philadelphia public schools ... have been horribly unfunded for a number of years," Collins said. "So it's never a surprise."
Teachers union president Jerry Jordan said while he supports the mayor's initiative, it's not enough to compensate for massive budget cuts.
"For our children to thrive, our schools need to be fully supplied with teachers and school support staff as well as classroom materials," Jordan said in a statement.
Leaders of charter and Catholic schools who attended Nutter's news conference also expressed their gratitude.
Charter schools, which are public but operate independently, educate about 63,000 students. Their funding is tied to the district's budget, which was sharply reduced this year as increased costs outweighed incoming revenue and state aid.
Catholic schools have been hit hard for years by rising costs and dwindling enrollment. On July 1, the archdiocese turned over 14 struggling parish schools - all but one in Philadelphia - to a private manager.
The Philadelphia Education Supplies Fund is being overseen by the United Way. Officials did not immediately disclose the criteria for awarding money.
Donations can be made at www.unitedforimpact.org/teachersupplies