If you google “public education in the United States,” you get a list of sites proclaiming that K through 12 education is “free.” That’s news to most parents. A recent survey by AmOne.com found that parents routinely spend over $500 just for back-to-school costs. Per child. Costs tend to be lower for elementary school children, but they still go far beyond the pencil set, lunch box and composition book that many of us remember getting.
Back to school costs: more than pencils
AmOne’s survey of 1,000 parents of school-age children found that most were able to keep their spending at $500 or less per child.
Spending amount percent of respondents
- Under $500: 68%
- $500 to $1,000: 21%
- $1,001 to $2,000: 5%
- $2,001 to $3,000: 2%
- Over $3,000: 5%
However, these amounts don’t even come close for parents in cash-strapped school districts. Many schools offloaded more costs onto parents as property tax revenues fell during the Great Recession.
Researchers at TakePart.com claim that it’s increasingly common for schools to tack on additional fees for textbooks, science labs, and PE. There might be fees, charges to ride the school bus, play on sports teams or enter programs like art and music. If your child plans to get an early jump on college with Advanced Placement classes, you might have to pay extra.
And the trend is getting worse — a Communities in Schools survey across 26 states and the District of Columbia concluded that 62% of elementary school students have been asked to submit assignments online from home. That increased to 88% for middle school students and 94% for high schoolers. Technology and internet service costs can create a real hardship for less-affluent families.
But worse than the burden on individual families is the cost to society. Children of families who can’t pay risk failing grades. And they experience higher drop-out rates.
Annual costs of “free” public school for families
Huntington Bank and the organization Communities in Schools have been tracking costs to public school families since 2007, and recently released their Backpack Index for 2019. The latest data show these average school-related costs for students from public elementary through high school.
Back to school clothing
In addition to mandatory school-related expenses imposed by schools, there are costs decreed by school society. Channel CBS-19 related stories and statistics showing that about half of parents felt pressured to overspend for back-to-school — mostly for clothing and shoes. Public accounting firm Deloitte surveyed parents and found that about 90% planned to spend nearly $300 for clothing.
This parental burden is likely the by-product of pressure their children feel to fit in at school. Kids grow. They wear out clothes. Styles change. And most want to start school with a new look and a boost of confidence. Who doesn’t want that for their children?
For many families, the struggle is real
A few hundred dollars may not seem insurmountable to many who read this article. But consider those with more than one child in school. And today, more than 50% of schoolchildren qualify for free or reduced lunch programs. That is traditionally the way agencies determine the amount of poverty present in a district.
The average family with two children in public school may be looking at $2,000 to over $3,200 in school-related costs. And the income eligibility limit for a family of four is $3,970 a month for free or reduced-priced lunches.
Federal data show that families with lower incomes spend a high percentage of their money on housing — 40%, in fact. So assuming that $1,588 comes off the top, the family has $2,382 for everything else. That’s including income taxes (even just Social Security and Medicare clip 7.65%, or $304 a month. So now a family that’s at the top of the low-income food chain has just over $2,000 a month for utilities, food, insurance, medical expenses, transportation, clothing and laundry, cleaning supplies, entertainment and everything else.
The price we don’t see
The $2,000 to $3,200 hit for “free” public schooling can break those families. Hence the higher drop-out rates when school costs rise. Imagine having to decide between a medical visit or buying your child’s textbooks. Or telling your academically-challenged daughter that you can’t afford the art class that supports her real talent. Everyone is good at something. And it’s not always academics.
By adding school costs to strained family budgets, we increase the chances that the next generation will also struggle. And by pricing “elective” activities out of reach for millions of less-affluent children, we insure that many won’t discover their talents or find their passion for school. Many labor in school without finding the thing that boosts their confidence and keeps them going. And 25% don’t graduate with their class, says CNN.com.
According to Psychology Today, the poorest students were five times more likely than the wealthiest to drop out.
And society loses out as well when we push students out of school. And not just because dropouts commit 75% of crimes. But also because we may be depriving ourselves of the next genius. The next brilliant artist. The voice of the next generation. Just because he or she happened to be poor as a child.