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January 20, 2021

What happens when families can’t afford the high costs of public schools?

Some families consider things like school supplies or class fees to be incidental expenses, but the very real costs of sending a child to a public school are putting some kids at a disadvantage. It’s time to stop complaining about the cost of homecoming dresses and focus on the cost of opportunity.


Public schools are supposed to be free, right?

Technically, property taxes fund public education, and every year, the rate creeps higher because there’s always some new multi-million dollar need “for the children.”

Unfortunately, the taxes don’t cover everything. For many school districts, those tax dollars barely keep the lights on.

My family pays pretty hefty taxes for our school district, but during the last month, we’ve had to scrape up an additional $800 to pay for items such as:

  • High school class dues
  • Damage deposits so the kids can use the school’s video equipment for class
  • Routine school supplies
  • Gear so they can participate in school sports
  • Meals so they can eat during the evenings they participate in school sports
  • Tickets so we can watch them participate in school sports
  • Novels for English classes because the teachers require them to write notes in them

To some, that may seem like a small amount, especially if they’re paying private school tuition on top of that. However, for a family that can’t afford private school or are already living on a tight budget, these “incidental expenses” hit hard. For some, these “incidental expenses” mean their children do without, both at home and at school.

My children are learning what it means to do without. Some of this is based on financial reasons, and some is based on my deliberate efforts to squash an entitlement mentality. It seems to be working for the best; the kids don’t have a chance to feel entitled if the budget won’t allow it.

Image: Pixabay
Image: Pixabay

Unfortunately, many family budgets don’t allow for a lot. It’s sad that even within one public school we have two castes of students – those whose families can pay for those “incidental expenses,” and those whose families are struggling with basic living expenses. The educations they receive are very different.

  • A gifted teen from a single-parent family will never be able to get college credit for an Advanced Placement course because her mom can’t afford to pay for the national exam.
  • A talented athlete whose parents work long hours will never be able to join the team because he doesn’t have transportation for practices.
  • A budding film-maker will never be able to take a video production class at school because her family is unable to pay the damage deposit on the equipment she needs to use.
  • A struggling student will never be able to come in for tutoring because the school bus doesn’t get him to school early enough to meet with the teacher.
  • A talented actress will never be in the school play because she has younger siblings to take care of after school.

Meanwhile, well-off families lament the high cost of homecoming dresses or the inconvenient hours of the SAT-prep courses.  They freak out about being rezoned to a brand new suburban school with state-of-the-art equipment, while parents just 10 miles away would give their right arms to have their children in a facility that’s not crumbling around them. Sadly, many of these families don’t even recognize that while their child is typing his assignments on his personal laptop, one of his classmates across town is scrounging around trying to find paper for her English essay.

Public schools are never free.

Some pay more than others.


2 Comments on What happens when families can’t afford the high costs of public schools?

  1. The extra fees are not necessary & are excessive & put too much burden on struggling families. Even back when I was in public school my family struggled with the excessive fees,,, in the 50’s. Now, even the underpaid dedicated teachers often need to furnish much of the classroom bare necessity supplies. This is so wrong, too. And schools should NEVER deny a child a full lunch bc they have no money or owe for back lunches. Giving them a PB & J sandwich is demeaning. I think TAXES should be used appropriately,,, and they are NOT.

  2. I can sort of understand having to pay extra for a lot of things, except food. I think that’s one thing public schools shouldn’t charge for. There are so many kids who can’t afford the food, and you keep hearing about incidents where the school actually wouldn’t let the kid eat because they owed too much money. That isn’t right. No child should be at school hungry. I remember just not eating at school because I didn’t have any money, and whenever someone else didn’t eat all their food I’d mooch off them. It was rather embarrassing, but my parents were poor and I figured at least them not having to pay for that would help out a little.

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