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Why Does It Cost So Much to Educate a Child in America?

We've heard a lot recently about the I Promise School that LeBron James is helping to start in Akron, Ohio, and, in theory, it seems like a good idea: Gather up 240 at-risk students into a school that, in addition to academics, provides "wraparound" services like free breakfast and lunch and an extended school day and school year to keep kids off the streets.

The Akron Beacon Journal reports some staggering dollar amounts being poured into the school that will enroll 240 kids.

  • The school, which is public and part of Akron Public Schools, is costing the district nearly $2.9 million from its general fund to cover the cost of most salaries, benefits, supplies and other base elements of the school.
  • By 2023, Pendleton estimates the school will cost the district a cumulative total of $8.1 million, but he considers it a “long-term investment” that will lead to smaller class sizes in other schools, better enrollment and improved report card ratings, among other benefits.
  • The contributions to the school from the foundation and its partners has amounted to more than $2 million for its physical transformation, additional staffing for smaller class sizes, technology, wraparound supports and other upgrades for the first year, according to the foundation.
  • Peg’s Foundation is committing $2.5 million to the school over the next five years, primarily for its wraparound support services, but also for whatever the LeBron James Family Foundation deems necessary in its first few years.

Contrary to some reporting, the LeBron James Family Foundation isn't footing the bill for all of the school's operating expenses. The foundation has donated $2 million thus far for start-up costs and has committed to another $2 million a year as the school builds to capacity. Because IPS will be part of the Akron City School District, a little over 14,000 in tax dollars will be allocated for each pupil enrolled in the school—the same as for students in every other school in the district. Add to that the millions in charity dollars that will be poured into the school every year and the cost of each child's education begins to skyrocket.

The chart below shows how education dollars are spent in each state. Note that less than half of school expenditures go to pay teacher salaries—and that gray "other" category comes out to around 28 percent of the total amount spent.

All of which begs the question: why does it cost so much to educate a child in the United States? Answer: It doesn't. Or at least it shouldn't.

My husband and I managed to homeschool children through high school for less than $1000 per year—for two kids, both of whom had learning disabilities. Some years we spent a lot less than that by buying used curriculum or utilizing our public library or free online resources. When our kids were in middle school, a bunch of homeschooling families we knew started a co-op that met once a week. Students completed their assignments at home and met for classes taught by parents who volunteered for teaching duties. Only a couple of the parents were trained teachers, but we somehow managed to provide a fabulous—and challenging—educational experience for our kids. As I recall, each family paid administrative expenses of about $50 per year and another $300 or so for books. Catholic schools educate children for around $5000 a year and many private Christian schools do it for even less than that.