The cost of “free” education

A parent looks at the true cost of education in our state-funded primary schools.

I think my kids’ school is awesome, so I’m not naming the school or myself here, because to do so would be unfair. They’re doing what they have to do to provide a quality education, even though the method of raising money to do this really grates me sometimes. Unfortunately, it’s a method very widely used because schools have to be very creative to make budget.

With three kids in primary school, it feels like every week I’m being asked for $2.50 for a hot dog fundraising lunch, $4.50 for a visiting cultural performance, $28 for class swimming lessons or $12 for visiting gymnastic instructors. I’m pretty sure that legally I can’t be forced to pay for these things (with the exception of the non-compulsory hot dog) because they are part of the curriculum. But the school is careful not to give this impression and I pay them anyway. Nobody likes to make a fuss or risk their children being sent to the library while the rest of the school sees visiting African drummers.

Maybe I also paid up because – and I’m embarrassed to admit – I only paid about $100 of the requested $500 school donation for my three kids. February is a financially constrained time following the credit card crunch of Christmas and the $324 I’d just shelled out for stationery and mysterious “activity” charges. And this year my Year 7 also had a $350 school camp in late February. And no, I hadn’t had the foresight to put aside $10 a week for this since last July. Sue me.

So, out of masochistic curiosity, I decided to keep track of every dollar I spent on my kids’ “free” schooling, for the four terms from July 2016 to July 2017. The results were eye-watering.
Unsurprisingly, the costs were highest for my Year 6/7 child. School camp was a huge hit, but there was more stationery, bigger class trips, and transport and other costs associated with classes for art, music, hard materials, soft materials and food technology at the local intermediate school (or woodwork, sewing and cooking as they used to call it in the olden days…) His education cost me a grand total of $579.50.

My child in Year 2/3 was a “mere” $149 and my Year 1/2 had costs of $109. For them, the biggest expense after stationery and activity fees was the (already subsidized!) lessons at the school pool, costing $28 each.

Then there was fundraising. This certainly wasn’t compulsory, but try telling that to your kids on Hamburger Day or Disco Night. Those glow sticks and lolly bags really add up. Besides, it’s for a very good cause, right? Fundraising donations and purchases came to $148.50 for the year.
The grand total for one year of “free” schooling for three kids, including our $100 school donation – $1086. I know families at other public schools have spent far more than this, while for other families, this is an impossible amount of money to contribute to their children’s education.

Because, the thing is that our family is one of the lucky ones. We live in a high-decile community that by-and-large can afford the extras that give our children a rich, well-rounded education. I know that the next suburb over, most schools don’t bother to ask for donations, because families can’t afford even $20 a year. Their senior students are more likely to have a sleepover in the school hall than a three-day camp with rock climbing, kayaking, bush hikes and more.

Decile funding doesn’t make up for the inequities in our public schools. We’ve fallen a long way since the 1980s when school fundraising efforts were for pools and playground upgrades, not delivering the curriculum.

This new government is talking a big talk about better funding for our schools, particularly for children with special learning needs. I’m looking forward to seeing some real improvements. The Minister’s plan to pay schools an extra $150 per student if they don’t ask for donations is a great start. Our school would gain $63,000 a year, which should be a noticeable chunk more than what it currently receives in donations. I don’t expect the requests for activity payments to dry up overnight, but I’m desperately hoping that the decile division between the “haves” and the “have nots” is going to become a thing of the past.

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