Starting in kindergarten, I attended a public elementary, middle, and high school. My classmates were born in the U.S. and abroad, had high incomes and low incomes, and spoke English or Spanish or something else at home.

I took for granted that our teachers were paid by the state and our books were loaned to us each year. Apparently, the PTA also contributed by paying for computers and books, and even a memorial garden to commemorate students and teachers we lost.

However, being enrolled in public school is not completely free. While it’s less than private school, I’m surprised by how much most families need to spend to educate their children at a public school. 

1. Academic Costs

It used to be that notebooks and pencils were all you needed for your classes. Now it’s expected that you have a computer at home that connects to the internet, not to mention a printer. We used to spend class time in the computer lab working on papers that we would save on floppy disks and take home if we could, but it wasn’t required.

Working in a public high school this year, I was surprised by the number of assignments the students needed to either submit online or print out. While I also wrote papers using a computer, it was usually the more time-intensive assignments at the end of the semester.

Nowadays, handwritten assignments are rarely accepted, and there are even computer-only assignments throughout the semester.

Some schools have even instituted fees for services. This is including parking spots, technology fees, and lab fees for science classes. School districts are often required to waive the fees for low-income families. Schools can even prohibit students from attending prom (which can cost $65 per person, after paying student dues) or graduation, which also carries a cost for the cap and gown.

2. Extracurriculars

Even with the performing arts or sports associations, families must invest in extracurriculars. Uniforms for sports teams, formal attire for band and orchestra concerts, and costumes for theater. Joining clubs can add up to a lot more than what some families can afford.

I was lucky to be able to be involved in newspaper, orchestra, theater, National Honor Society, and Amnesty International in high school. I do recall having to spend some money to be involved in these, but not a large amount. For example, I purchased my own violin, though it was optional. I bought formal attire for concerts, costume items for theater productions, and stamps for sending letters for Amnesty International. Mostly, I felt that I was spending time rather than money.

Now my high school charges $35 just to participate in orchestra, $300 to join marching band, and various amounts depending on a student’s involvement in athletics.

Perhaps it was because of my family’s capability, but I didn’t think twice about the cost of extracurriculars.

3. College Prep

Just because a student is earning a high school diploma doesn’t mean that they can automatically go to college. While the SAT and ACT tests are supposed to “even the playing field,” a student is at a disadvantage if they don’t have access to a prep course.

The Atlanta Public Schools District offers information on test prep classes on their website. They indicate there are both paid and low-cost or free classes. The paid classes are through local colleges and private companies, such as Kaplan and The Princeton Review, that range for $95 to $1,199.

On the other hand, the low-cost options come from third-party websites, including the local library and Kahn Academy. Again, a student would need access to a computer and the internet to participate in most of them.

4. Childcare

While extracurriculars may fall under this category, the school day itself just isn’t long enough for some parents. After-school care for an elementary school near me requires a $40 membership of the YMCA and a weekly $71 fee, billed monthly. That totals to nearly $2,700. That's not including holiday breaks (which make up 24 possible days over the school year), during which time families can enroll their children for $40 a day (24 possible days over the school year).

The Lesser-Known Cost of Going to a Public School