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The Cost of Education

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If there's one thing that has shocked me on my journey to educate my children, it's the sheer cost.  In many ways, I think the free and compulsory education principle in this country has skewed my thinking a bit.  Neither my husband nor myself had reasonable expectations about what educating our children would really cost.  I mean, we knew college would be insane, but everything before then would have little to no impact on our budget, right?

Obviously, our decision to add Montessori into the mix changed things dramatically.  As everyone says, Montessori is expensive.  However, as I've begun to investigate the topic, I'm finding that educating in any way, shape or form will take a toll on your bottom line and that Montessori may not be quite the front runner everyone expected.

Let's start with homeschooling...

Obviously, homeschooling is somewhere in the middle.  It's generally far cheaper than private school but is often a bit more costly than public school (more on those costs later).  So what does the average home-school family spend per child, per year?  According to the HSLDA:  $500 with the high end at around $1000.  That would mean somewhere in the range of $1500-$3000 annually for three children.

How do those costs break down for the average home-school family?

Let's look at a standard 1st grade scope of study along with popular traditional curriculum choices:
  • Math  $110
    • Math-U-See Alpha with Instruction Pack, Student Pack and Blocks  
  • Language Arts  $155
    • Reading $120  - All About Reading Level 1
    • Writing $35 - Handwriting Without Tears Teacher Guide, Student Book and Chalkboards
  • Science $127 (not including lab supplies)
    • Real Science 4 Kids Build Block Book 1
  • History $66
    • Story of the World Combo Pack Volume 1
  • Geography $13
    • Beginning Geography, Grades K-2 by Evan-Moor
Right there we're at $471 for one child for one year.  Granted a few of the items will carry over, and some things can be reused for multiple children, although most curriculum requires the purchase of additional student packs.  Also note that I did not include every possible subject.  Many families add things such as spelling, fine arts or health and safety.  This is purely curriculum costs without tax and shipping.  There are no totals for science supplies, co-op dues, convention attendance, additional books/readers or general supplies like paper, printer ink or markers.  Since home-school laws vary from state to state, you may also find yourself paying for in home assessments or required annual testing.

Granted, as the HSLDA article points out, there are ways to make it far cheaper, but this is a common approach.

So where does Montessori fall on the spectrum?  Pretty much anywhere you want.  There are many levels of making, buying or skipping materials.  There are also many choices of albums, some which can easily run you over $1K.  Mine certainly didn't cost that.  In fact, my latest set was $120 for three years of material.  For those who have seen my classroom, I certainly fall into the buy vs make camp.  Even then I haven't come close to the high end of home schoolers for three children.  And yes, I'm a good bargain shopper.  As an additional bonus, my materials last for at least three years with many extending into elementary.  They are not consumable, and I can easily sell them at any point for close to what I paid.  But yes, there is an initial investment.

I should also point out that we make additional investments that are not necessary.  We spend at least double our annual supplies just to send our children to a Montessori school for two months.  It's a massive cost, comparatively.  It's worth it to us since we can squeeze it in.  Family helps us with this initiative as well, or we most likely couldn't do it.  We have also added Classical Conversations tuition to our annual cost.  It far exceeds what I pay for the classroom annually, even before our CC supplies.

So I found $6.57 in the bottom of my purse.  Should I purchase a single math lesson or one cube from the pink tower?  Forget it.  I'm going to Starbucks.


I want to take a moment to address early education as well.

We live in a state that does not offer public preschool.  This means that if I want my child formally instructed at an early age, I can either do it myself or send my child to a private school.  Compulsory education is not mandatory until age 7, although children who meet the cut-off can start public kindergarten at age 5.  The cheapest 3-day per week preschool I could locate was around $300 per month, with most hitting more in the $450 range.  The good ones are easily $750.  With the standard 9 month cycle, the cheapest preschool would still run me $2700 annually plus whatever additional fees are charged (registration and such).  Do you know what kind of classroom I can set up for that amount? 

So now that I've shocked you with the realities of homeschooling, let's talk about the "free" option.

The sad reality is that the cost of public education is far from free in most states now.  Schools everywhere are hurting, despite the lowest funded getting at least $10K per child per year (another story entirely).  They are increasingly passing these costs on to families.  I checked around in our area.  The average textbook rental cost per student per year at the lower grades was anywhere from $125 to $400, depending on the township.  Each child is then given a list of required supplies for the school year that will run a minimum of $100.  Many schools have started charging participation fees for any additional activity... band, sports, foreign language clubs... you name it.  The fee for one of the local school districts was a $225 base participate fee that climbed from there, depending on exactly what your child participated in.  Some teachers at the early levels require students to purchase additional books as well.  There's another $100.  Up until recently, our township charged for busing to the tune of $50 per month, per student.  That's right, $450 per school year.  The largest public school system in our city requires uniforms.  Those aren't free.  It's no surprise that the National Retail Foundation reports that the average family spends $600 per student, per year on back-to-school expenses.  $600 per child on a "free" education?  That's more than the average home-school family!  

So why am I telling you this?  Am I trying to give you a heart attack?

Not at all.  I believe that knowledge is power.  This is the reality of the situation whether you are aware of it or not.  My husband and I certainly had a moment of shocking revelation.  We had to adjust our thinking and our plan of attack.  My hope is that by understanding your options and the costs, you can better prepare for the future with realistic expectations.  I know that many of my readers are in the early-education camp and may be blissfully unaware of what lies ahead, even in a public education setting.  Now is the time to begin laying out your goals, adjusting expectations and addressing the budget, if necessary.  Talk with your significant other in real terms. Also keep in mind that educational requirements and laws can vary greatly from state to state, so do your due diligence to see what the total cost of public education is in your district, if you're leaning that route.  Home-school laws also differ, and can greatly affect the total cost for those with strict curriculum requirements, assessments and testing.  

Believe me, I know it's tough.  Grappling with your child's education poses enough challenges before throwing budget considerations in the mix.  But I will promise you, where there's a will, there's a way, whether it's finding new sources of income or creatively homeschooling on a shoestring.  So start planning and praying now!  You can make it work.

-Bess