A Free Public School Education Still Costs A Ton


As students go back to school, public school parents don’t have to worry about tuition. But that doesn’t mean they’re off the hook: they still often have to buy supplies and uniforms and pay fees for tests and trips, expenses that really add up. And the cost of those extras is on the rise.

Since 2007, Huntington Bank has gotten classroom supply lists from a variety of schools and put together an index of the cost of the items. Parents of elementary school students can expect to shell out $642 this year; $918 for middle schoolers; and $1,284 for high schoolers.

Those expenses are substantially more than last year. High school costs are up 5 percent, elementary costs are up 11 percent, and middle school costs have jumped a whopping 20 percent, which is one of the largest increases in the history of the index. In comparison, inflation and wages have only risen about 2 percent each over that time period. Overall, since 2007 costs have increased 83 percent for elementary school students, 73 percent for middle school, and 44 percent for high school.

This year’s cost increases were driven by higher fees for standardized testing as well as for field trips and sports. More students also have to buy gym uniforms, graphing calculators for Algebra in middle school, and tablets for middle and high schoolers.

The costs often don’t even end there, however. Many parents also spend money on enrichment activities, or after school classes like tutoring, sports, or piano lessons. And they come with a hefty price: the wealthiest families paid nearly $9,000 a year on these activities in the 2005–2006 school year, an increase from a bit more than $3,500 in the early 1970s, adjusted for inflation. Given growing income inequality, low-income families spend much less on outside activities and that gap has been growing, from about $2,700 in the 1970s to over $7,500 in 2006. Even so, the lowest-income family was still spending more than $1,300 a year on enrichment activities in 2006.

And if a parent’s schedule doesn’t line up with the school day, which is on average just about six and a half hours compared to the average nine-hour workday, parents can expect to pay dearly for child care. It can come to more than $12,000 a year to put a four-year-old in a daycare center — it costs more than tuition for a public college in 19 states and Washington, D.C. Daycare costs are also rising faster than pay or inflation.

It’s little wonder, given these high price tags, that it is increasingly expensive to raise a child. A middle-class family who has a child this year can expect to spend more than $300,000 on raising her until age 18, adjusted for projected inflation. That’s up from $198,560 in 1960 in today’s dollars. And a big chunk of that cost is education and child care, the second largest expense for middle- and high-income families and the third largest for low-income ones.