My 5 children have, at various times, attended both private and public elementary, middle and high schools. Right now we have one college graduate, one still in college and two kiddos in the same public elementary school, with one of them leaving for public middle school next year.

The public elementary school that my youngest two children have been attending for the last 6 years is a magnet school, meaning that we have a very diverse student body. Our students range from the kids who live in the public housing project directly adjacent to the school to children of parents who have chosen to travel to the school from other areas of town to be part of the school’s competitive and highly rated honors program. We are among that second group.

There’s no doubt that public schools are cheaper for parents than private schools are. I know this because my kids have attended both types of schools. The two categories of school aren’t even in the same  financial stratosphere. Private schools generally charge hefty tuition, even if some of their students receive financial aid, while in theory, public schools are supposed to be, well, you know, free. But after having my kids in private schools for many years, when we moved them to public schools, I learned that public schools definitely are not completely free, and every time I spend cash for some item or another that one or the other of my kids needs for something extra or special – something they need for school or something that isn’t even offered at the school, I feel a little pang of worry for how low income parents are able to pay for these same items.

Like today, for example, it’s book character day at my children’s elementary school. My 5th grader dressed as Peter Pan and my 2nd grader dressed as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. In anticipation of today, both my children dug eagerly through their drawers full (yes, we have drawers full) of costumes and dress-up clothes last night to pick out what they would wear today, and in both cases, they were able to don quite accurate costumes depicting favorite characters from favorite books. But as much as I enjoyed seeing my children happily choose what costumes they would wear today, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of hurt for the classmates I am sure that they have who don’t have many or any choices for this special dress up day and whose parents don’t have the means to buy anything special for their children to wear.

SchoolbusAnother area where I know that my public schooled children have financial access where many of their classmates do not is when it comes to sports and special activities. Many if not most private schools include the cost of sports and arts instruction in the cost of tuition. But for most publicly schooled children, sports, music and other enrichment costs are an out-of-pocket expense (our particular elementary school is an arts magnet school so we do have some music and dance classes plus a major theater program). Here in the town where I live, the cost of playing on an elementary or middle-school-age youth lacrosse, basketball, swim or soccer team can range from $25 to $225 per season, not including the equipment needed for the specific sport, the time in the afternoons away from work to get a child to and from games and practices, plus the cost of gas for that transportation. For a parent counting every penny, paying that much out of pocket for even a single season of a popular sport can make sports participation outside of their family budgets.

The costs for outside-of-school sports, like travel teams, rise exponentially the older your kids get, and if your child is seriously interested in or talented in a sport that your public middle or high school doesn’t routinely offer, like swimming, ice skating or lacrosse, the annual cost can run upward of 1k for a child to participate. Obviously this means that the great majority of publicly schooled kids aren’t able to pay for the more advanced outside-of-school sports costs as they get older and the teams grow more competitive – and costly.

And dance and music programs are similar. While privately schooled children almost always have music, theater and often, dance instruction included in their tuition, publicly schooled children rarely do. Music instruction in particular has been shrinking at our nation’s public schools at an alarming rate. My two youngest children are privileged enough to receive private violin and dance lessons (thanks grandmothers Hickman and Allison) but even as I watch how much joy these activities bring my own kids, I also hurt for the great number of their public school classmates in our very diverse school whom I know would love to have access to these activities but don’t – these programs aren’t included in their public school curricula and their families can’t pay the costs themselves.

As far as public high school goes, all three of my oldest kids attended the same (excellent) high school, with what I am guessing has the most economically diverse student body of any high school in the county. This school has some seriously rich kids learning alongside kids who live in subsidized housing. And it’s that second group of kids I worry about during the first week of school when parents are asked to write checks for specific class “registration” fees running into the hundreds of dollars. How do the less privileged kids’ parents pay these fees? I wondered this each fall when my kids’ dad and I were required to pay them when our three oldest were in high school. There’s also a $50 fee to park on campus, a $50 “sports attendance” fee allowing the kids to come watch school games like basketball and football, plus separate costs to be allowed to play in several of the team sports offered by the school. The hardcover annual high school yearbook, in which affluent parents plunk down hundreds of dollars to take out ads celebrating their graduating seniors, certainly costs more than many students can afford to buy to commemorate their year. (I’m lucky; my kids never cared about buying any of their high school yearbooks).

And that brings me to how hard teachers work to ameliorate the difference between the well-to-do and not-so-well-to-do children at the public schools where they work. Already-underpaid teachers spend their own money to make their classrooms as engaging and interactive as possible and they volunteer their time after classes to coach sports or oversee clubs and organizations. They find backpacks and notebooks and pencils and paper for students who obviously don’t have these things and (at least at my kids’ elementary school) they work with the PTA to be sure that every child receives a yearbook and gets the chance to take home their very own, brand new book from the school’s annual book fair.

And the government (you know, that government that everyone is always complaining about) and community organizations also step in to help with some truly crucial needs that many parents at our public school simply can’t cover on their own. For example, at our elementary school, parents don’t have to apply for free or reduced cost school lunch; because such a large percentage of the students at our school would qualify for these programs, all children who attend the school receive free breakfast in their classrooms each morning and free lunch in the cafeteria each day. Also, I don’t know this for sure, but I find it likely that a not insignificant percentage of the children who attend my kids’ school receive the “weekend food backpacks” that critical organizations such as Second Harvest send home on Fridays with children whose families likely have trouble paying for food on the weekend days when school food isn’t provided. Here in Knoxville we also have a PTA-run clothing closet where parents who can afford to buy new clothes for their kids can donate gently used items that their kids have outgrown for use by low-income families who need to “shop” at the closet for their own children’s needs.

So with the help of volunteers, donors and teachers, many of the most critical needs that low income parents of public school students face (food, clothes, etc) are met, but many other fees and costs and “extras” are not. That’s why, as I watched my children happily burrow around in their trunk and drawers for which costumes they wanted to wear today, or when I write a check for a season of lacrosse, or my child is thrilled to be leaving the annual school book fair with a bag full of new books (thank you, grandmother Hickman) while her classmate is happy to have just one, I feel a pang of hurt.

Public school may not charge tuition, but it’s not free, either. I know that there’s great inequality in the sports and enrichment opportunities that my publicly schooled children have each season compared to many of their classmates. And I can write an extra donation check or take my children’s outgrown clothes to the PTA Closet but it won’t make a real dent in the differences that exist between my children’s opportunities compared to the opportunities that their public school classmates (don’t) enjoy.

And that hurts my heart.


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