From kindergarten through twelfth grade, I attended public school, partly because the cost of private school was too high for my family to justify.
My classmates were born here in the United States and abroad, and had both high and low incomes. They also spoke a wide variety of languages at home.
I took for granted that our teachers were paid by the state and our books were lent to us each year.
Apparently, the PTA contributed to our education by paying for computers, books, and even a memorial garden to commemorate students and teachers we lost.
However, enrolling in public school is not completely free.
Though it’s less expensive than private school and homeschooling, it’s surprising how much most families must spend to educate their children at a taxpayer-funded educational institution.
This led me to weigh the costs and benefits of each of these three options. How can parents assess the cost of a primary-school education in the context of the benefits provided? Here’s the breakdown on the price for each:
The Cost of Public School
Based on my own experiences attending (and working in) American high schools, I have found that most public school students inevitably have to pay the following costs.
1. Academic Costs
It used to be that all you needed for classes were notebooks and pencils. We used to spend class time in the computer lab working on papers that we would save on floppy disks to take home if we wanted, though this wasn’t required.
Now it’s expected that students have a computer at home that connects to the internet, in addition to a printer, calculator, and more.
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. Though I also wrote papers using a computer, doing so was usually required only for intensive assignments, such as term papers due at the end of the semester.
These days, however, handwritten assignments are rarely accepted, and computer-only assignments have become the norm.
Some schools have even instituted fees for additional services. This includes parking spots, technology fees, and lab fees for science classes.
Schools can even prohibit students from attending prom or graduation (which also carries the cost of buying or renting a cap and gown) if they refuse to pay for these additional costs. That said, school districts are often required to waive these fees for low-income families.
2. Extracurricular Activities
If students want to get involved in performing arts or sports associations, families usually pay the associated costs for these extracurriculars — these can include uniforms for sports teams, formal attire for band and orchestra concerts, and costumes for theater.
Joining clubs can quickly add up to 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, costumes for theater productions, and stamps for sending letters for Amnesty International.
Mostly, I felt that I was spending time rather than money.
The high school where I work charges $35 just to participate in orchestra, $300 to join the marching band, and various other 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. For many families, the costs can be prohibitive.
3. College Prep
Just because a student earns a high school diploma doesn’t mean that they will automatically go to college. Though 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 paid, low-cost, and free test-prep classes on its website. The paid classes are through local colleges and private companies, such as Kaplan and The Princeton Review, who offer courses ranging from $149 to about $1,200.
That doesn’t even account for additional tutoring sessions students might require. At the Princeton Review, this can cost an additional $167 per hour.
The low-cost options come from non-school affiliated websites, including the local library or Khan Academy. Again, a student would likely need access to a computer and an internet connection to take advantage of these options.
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 annual membership at the YMCA, and a weekly $71 fee — this total can reach upward of $3,000 a year (though these costs will vary depending on the operating costs of your local branch).
And that cost doesn’t include holiday breaks (which make up 24 possible days over the school year), during which time families can enroll their children for an additional $40 per day.
The Cost of Private Schools
With the hidden costs of public schools somewhere in the hundreds (and possibly thousands) of dollars, it makes sense why some families consider private primary or secondary education.
Though the average annual cost of private high school was $16,040 in 2020, according to data collected by EducationData, tuition can vary widely across the country; for example, in Connecticut, high school tuition is $33,610, whereas Wisconsin's average tuition cost comes out to $8,110.
With costs of a private elementary and secondary education exceeding that of many colleges, it’s important to ensure you’re getting your money’s worth. Here are a couple of ways you can determine whether the cost of private school is the right choice for your children.
1. Religious Education
At a recent meal with friends, we were talking about Jewish day schools, which are private schools with a mix of Jewish and secular studies.
My partner and I are committed to raising our kids in a Jewish home with as much of a Jewish education as we can. But like many families who would like to send their children to private school, we don’t know if it will be a possibility for us.
Our friend has four kids, three of whom are old enough to be in school. Two of them are on a special education track.
He said they made it a priority to send their children to private Jewish day school, even though it costs them $40,000 for the school year. You just work it out, he said — because it’s worth it.
For them, a private school education is money well spent.
They prioritize Jewish education — not to mention that they live very close to the school. They keep considering a move, but they like the area where they live, and wouldn’t be able to afford it otherwise.
Likewise, many other families consider there to be intrinsic value in their child receiving a faith-based education, be it Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or another faith.
While affordability remains a big question for many, if a religious education is a priority for you and yours, it may be worth the cost.
2. Specialized Instruction
Another reason many parents opt for private school is the individualized nature of the instruction.
Not only do private schools average a smaller student-to-teacher ratio — according to the National Center for Education Statistics — but their endowments and non-taxpayer funded status frequently give them greater freedom and resources to provide specialized instruction.
Students with learning disabilities could benefit from the more hands-on approach inherent to private education. Parents of children with special needs should weigh the value of this instruction when deciding which to attend.
3. Scholarships, Financial Aid, and Payment Plans
There are some scholarships available for private schools. If your child qualifies for them, they can help lower the cost of private school and aid you in your ultimate decision about whether or not going private is worth it for your children.
Private primary and secondary education scholarships are often available for families with low incomes. The Children’s Scholarship Fund gives a great overview of opportunities by state.
Many private schools use the FACTS Grant and Aid Assessment to determine the amount of financial aid and the payment plan for which a family would qualify.
Working one-on-one with the school’s admissions department will give you a better sense of what options work best.
Taking all funding opportunities into consideration can help you stack up the true cost of a private education (against that of a public one) to determine which is the better bang for your buck.
You may be able to receive a discount by working at the school. The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), a membership organization of more than 1,500 schools nationwide, highly recommends tuition remission for staff.
As the NAIS states on its website, tuition remission is a way for schools to attract teachers to their institutions by offering tax-free benefits, including the chance to receive free or reduced tuition for their children. This reduction can be need-based, but does not have to be.
Additionally, many private schools offer a discounted rate if you send two or more children there. This markdown can make all the difference when making the final decision as to whether a private school education is worth the added costs to your budget.
The Cost of Homeschooling
Just like private and public school, an at-home education comes at an often unexpected cost. But how much is it?
About 2.5 million children are homeschooled and this costs the families of these children an average of $600 per child each year, according to the nonprofit National Home Education Research Institute. Though homeschooling is cheaper than private schooling and more expensive than public school, parents tend to have their reasons for choosing this option.
The rationale behind opting for homeschooling varies widely. While we’re accustomed to consider homeschooled children as being from secluded, ultra-religious homes, many parents homeschool their kids to have a more specialized curriculum without the cost of sending them to private school.
I never considered homeschooling until I began wondering if I wanted to send my future children to public or private school. With these advantages and more, I decided to tally up the costs:
Just as in a traditional school, parents would need a curriculum to keep the kids on track with learning. English, math, history, science — perhaps even a foreign language. Even if a parent is a trained teacher, they would need resources to help the child learn.
Curriculum costs can vary, from borrowing books from others or from the library, to enrollment in an online school. For example, Bridgeway Academy, an online accredited homeschool, has tuition plans starting at $750 per child, per year, that can go up to $3,095 for a customized curriculum.
Some families may assemble a collection of resources, including science kits, Rosetta Stone for a foreign language, and textbooks from the Write Foundation, which focuses on writing for homeschoolers.
From what I’ve gleaned, a family could spend anywhere from $250 to over $5,000 per year for each child. It just depends on what type of curriculum the family uses.
2. Homeschool Association Fees
Each state has different rules regarding homeschooling. Most states require that families notify the state that they will homeschool. Some states, such as New York, provide a breakdown of the specific topics that families should cover for each grade.
Some require that you register with a homeschool association, which provides group learning opportunities.
Learners and Educators of Atlanta and Decatur, for example, charges $35 annually per family for membership, along with registration fees for classes. Each class taken with this program is available at an additional cost of $30 per semester.
As with kids who attend public or private school, homeschooled kids will also want to participate in extracurricular activities. Local sports leagues, theater groups, and music lessons all come with costs, which can vary per city.
The Atlanta YMCA, for example, charges $99 per month per family, and private music lessons can be quite pricey. At one music store in Atlanta, $140 per month will cover a half-hour lesson once a week, plus the cost of instrument rental.
Some families will also become members of museums, zoos, and aquariums for hands-on learning. Zoo Atlanta membership is $139 annually for two adults and up to four children under 18. Likewise, the Fernbank Museum of Natural History costs $130 a year per family.
These costs are auxiliary to the price of instruction, but they’re worth considering if you want to provide a specialized instruction for your child beyond the home classroom.
4. Lost Wages
One aspect of homeschooling that many people might not consider is the cost of lost wages. In families with two parents, one might work full time while the other is a stay-at-home parent.
If the stay-at-home parent works only part time or does not work at all due to being the kids’ primary caregiver and teacher, one could argue that the family should factor in the cost of lost wages.
These days, there is an increasing number of individuals with flexible jobs because of the gig economy (over 20 million sole proprietorships, or solopreneurs, according to the Small Business Association).
That may mean more flexibility, and freelancers may be earning more money per hour.
However, working while watching young children could mean fewer hours available to complete that work. Depending on the number of children and other responsibilities, the parent may not be able to earn a steady income.
Determining Which School Is Best for Your Child
Once you’ve assessed the true costs of the educational options available to you, it’s time to make a decision. While the financial angle is a necessary component to consider, there are a number of other criteria to keep in mind.
It helps to look at your child’s education as an investment in their future.
“While, of course, families should make sure that, financially, they have the means to afford the tuition, they should also consider the value versus the cost,” says Celeste Brooks, director of admission and financial aid at Randolph-Macon Academy.
“Many families say that the money invested in a child’s experience is priceless compared to how better prepared they are for college,” Brooks adds.
Similarly, it may be worth it for you and your child to examine each school’s atmosphere to determine if it’s a good fit.
“When you first walk into a school, what is that experience like for you?” asks Kristen Scala, founder and president of Aspen Academy, a pre-K through eighth-grade leadership and entrepreneurial development program. “Is it welcoming? Does it feel safe? Do you want to be there?”
“This is an excellent way to see if the school’s values are alive, and demonstrated by the environment,” Scala adds.
The Bottom Line
Assess the needs of your child in terms of their own education. For example, children who desire a highly intensive and specialized education may find the individualized nature of a homeschool far more satisfying than that of a public or private school.
Similarly, if your child doesn’t feel comfortable in the social environments offered by your local public and private options, then an at-home education may work best.
“If a student doesn’t feel comfortable with conventional schooling, be it because of bullying, special needs, or not feeling they are learning effectively, then homeschooling provides a tailored program for every student,” recommends former tutor and education advisor Mya Medina of U.K.–based tutoring company Tutor House.
Weigh the financial considerations of your household and the personal considerations of your child. That way, you’ll be able to make an educated, confident decision.