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Sending your kid back to school? It's going to cost you

Brooklyn's Juliette Posner remembers the exact moment she realized just how broke public schools really are.
/ Source: Reuters

Brooklyn's Juliette Posner remembers the exact moment she realized just how broke public schools really are.

Her daughter Merone graduated last spring from Manhattan's LaGuardia High School, a performing-arts mecca and inspiration for both the film "Fame" and the TV series. But one day she came home with some surprising news.

"The teacher ran out of paper," Posner, 35, says. "They didn't have any money for paper. I was like, 'Really?'"

Such is the reality of U.S. public schools, which have struggled in recent years as cash-strapped states contend with gutted tax revenues. And when schools see their budgets disappear, administrators increasingly rely on another revenue source to make up the difference: Parents.

"There's no question costs are shifting to parents," says Helaine Olen, a mother of two, personal finance writer and author of the upcoming book "Pound Foolish." She says that "schools are putting pressure on people to pay up during a time of severe economic hardship. Every year the ante goes up, and parents are asked to do even more."

The different fees can run the gamut from a $5 bill to $200 or more. At Ohio's Brecksville-Broadview Heights High School, you'll pay $130 to be in the spring musical, $50 for student council, $60 for the math club and $250 for fall cheerleading. At Fulton High School in Tennessee's Knox County, budget $30 for art supplies, a $5 "technology fee" for math class, a $10 lab fee if you're taking web design, and $30 for cleaning your band uniform. At Utah's Park City High School, get ready for a $45 student fee, $60 to partake in activities like wrestling or academic decathlon, $120 to rent a musical instrument and $10 to take French or Chinese.

In one sense, it's inevitable that cost burdens like those seem to be shifting. The lengthy economic slowdown has hamstrung educational budgets, and states can no longer count on federal stimulus money, which temporarily helped keep more dramatic cuts at bay.

Tapping the mother lode (and dad, too)
For parents, it's a choice between coming up with ways to cover more day-to-day expenses or witnessing their child's classroom suffer deep cuts in services. After all, the extra money isn't just earmarked for incidentals like tissues and cleaning solution.

"I've heard of parent money being used for almost everything at this point, including even classroom aides and substitute teachers," says Olen of Westchester County, New York, who has written about the relentless fundraising even at wealthy schools.

The trend is reflected in the spiking cash contributions of hard-pressed parents. The National Retail Federation is predicting the average parent will fork out $688.62 in back-to-school spending this fall, up more than 10 percent from the previous year. And according to a survey by the National School Supply and Equipment Association, 47 percent of teachers report that parents are now being required to purchase classroom materials.

It's not just required items, though, but a blizzard of optional expenses that are helping drive up the bill. From after-school tutors to club activities to tickets to the school play, parents are being asked to dip into their pockets at every turn.

And fundraising, rather than being a single bake sale, has become a constant and desperate plea for cash. For instance, Deborah Sweeney, a Calabasas, California, mother of two, reports that the "requested minimum" donation to her local parents' association is now $571 per student.

The end result, according to the Labor Department's Consumer Expenditure Survey: For husband-and-wife households with an oldest child between the ages of 6 and 17, annual expenses on education - a catch-all category that the survey doesn't break down - grew to $2,030 in 2010. That's up from $1,560 in 2007, which means average educational costs have ballooned around 30 percent at a time when net worth and disposable income have both plunged.

"Schools are charging incrementally for things they're not legally required to provide," says Marguerite Roza, an educational finance expert and research associate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. "They've always done that for some things, like driver's ed courses, but now it's become one of their main strategies to deal with rising labor costs and constrained budgets. Now you see fees associated with athletics, with music, with AP tests, with lunch. They're trying to figure out how to maximize revenue from families, while being careful that it doesn't reduce participation too much."

Juliette Posner created an Excel spreadsheet, tabulating the assorted costs of her daughter's senior year. Senior dues: $225. Advanced placement exams: $174. Books: $114. School supplies: $254. Taking the SATs: $50. And on and on, to the point where Posner -- including voluntary costs like fundraising donations, prom tickets and science trips -- estimates she dropped almost $5,000 in a single year.

Looking ahead, Posner predicts even more spending on the part of public-school parents.

"If schools aren't getting enough money, then parents will have to keep on stepping in to support them," she says. "We had to write a lot of checks this year - and it definitely hit us hard."

Read more from's Back To School series:

School requires girls to take pregnancy tests

Sodas banned from schools, but not sugary sports drinks. What gives?

Homework backlash begins: It doesn't help kids learn, experts say