Start of school takes bite in household budgets

Two students unlock their lockers at Rex Mill Middle School in Rex, Ga., on Monday, Aug. 5, 2019. Students at this school are required to wear uniforms. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA/CHRISTINA.MATACOTTA@AJC.COM

Two students unlock their lockers at Rex Mill Middle School in Rex, Ga., on Monday, Aug. 5, 2019. Students at this school are required to wear uniforms. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA/CHRISTINA.MATACOTTA@AJC.COM

Tracee Brown got tired of what seemed to be the constant requests for parents to go into their wallets.

“Even though Gwinnett schools don’t require uniforms, there are long lists of school supplies, fundraisers and other things,” she said. “If I didn’t think it was necessary, I just didn’t pay for it and my son does just fine.’

She’s not alone. The growing costs associated with public education have become an annual point of irritation, like taxes, for many parents.

Nathan Staples, a Clayton County grandparent, said, “I know it’s been nearly 40 years (since he attended public school), but it seems that we’re nickeled-and-dimed for everything.”

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Students are asked to pay for things that once were free. “I ran track as a kid and all I had to buy was my shoes,” said Staples.

The national average for school supplies is $110.78 for elementary, $270.76 for middle and $304.61 for high school, according to one annual nationwide survey. Extracurricular fees like field trips, clubs, etc. averaged $150 in elementary school, $250 in middle school and $350 in high school.

Such charges are legal, and schools can’t exclude students from classes or activities for credit if fees aren’t paid. Schools rely on them to pay for things not covered in districts’ property tax-funded budgets.


High schoolers are hit the hardest. Especially those in sports.

Depending upon the sport, athletic fees can be a few hundred dollars to nearly a thousand — with football generally the most expensive. But most school athletics have parent booster clubs who help the students raise money for uniforms, trips, end-of-year celebrations and other expenditures. Band fees are usually close behind with fees for uniform cleaning, transportation not just to games, but tournaments as well, meals and music.

Non-sports extracurricular activities often come with fees as well.

At Atlanta’s Grady High School, quiz bowl team members pay $25 for materials and tournament fees. The school doesn’t provide transportation. Students are required to carpool to tournaments. The Grady French Club charges $10 to cover T-shirts, refreshments and celebrations.

Gwinnett County Public Schools, the largest district in the state, has some high schools that charge students to park on campus and to use school lockers.

Several parents were miffed that many schools charge fees for lockers and for parking.

“They say parking is a privilege, not a right,” said Lori Smith, whose daughter graduated recently from a North Fulton County high school. “She had an after-school job and needed her car to get around. It’s not like she could park anywhere else.”

The high school parking fees vary. Gwinnett’s Brookwood High charges students $70 and Marietta High charges $50. Both, like other schools, have strict rules about grades, conduct and attendance for students to park on campus.

Graduating seniors often pay fees for cap and gown, diploma, senior activities, etc. Those fees can be less than $100 or more than several hundred dollars depending on the school.

Atlanta Public Schools officials reported it has about six teaching positions to fill before the start of the school year on Aug. 12. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC

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Shanita Burden said her son’s class dues at DeKalb County’s Narvie J. Harris Traditional Theme School are $60. That is in addition to the class supply list, which includes hand sanitizer, dry-erase markers, storage bags, tissue, white paper and various cleaning supplies.

“What are they for?” she said of the supplies. “He’s not using dry-erase markers. He’s not using highlighters.”

DeKalb County School District officials said the district's traditional schools do not require fees for laptops, laboratories or other amenities. The eight theme schools, including Narvie Harris, can require uniforms. Fifty-five of the district's other 137 schools encourage students to wear uniforms, officials said, "but cannot turn away students for not complying."

Most of the district’s high schools require class fees of some sort, with juniors and seniors paying more to subsidize proms and other events.

DeKalb Early College Academy has fees for all four classes. Incoming freshman were required to pay $105 for a T-shirt, school agenda, student ID card, and other activities including teacher appreciation.

Such costs of going to public school aren’t unique to metro Atlanta or Georgia.

Communities in Schools, one of the nation’s largest education advocacy nonprofits, and Huntington Bank, a regional bank that offers national online services, recently released their 13th annual Backpack Index, a barometer for household spending on school supplies and related fees.

It showed a significant increase in costs for families because of an increased reliance on connected devices for completing school work. Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents reported that elementary school students are at least sometimes asked to submit assignments from home via connected devices. That figure jumped to 88% for middle school students and 94% for high schoolers. The 2019 index added the cost of a basic laptop and home internet to the usual collection of classroom supplies and extracurricular fees.

According to the Huntington Backpack Index, parents can expect to pay per child:

  • $1,017 for elementary school supplies, extracurricular fees and technology
  • $1,277 for middle school supplies, extracurricular fees and technology
  • $1,668 for high school supplies, extracurricular fees and technology

With the rising costs comes an increase in philanthropy, said Steve Majors, a spokesman for Community in Schools.

Even though most school systems have started the new year, it’s not too late to check with nonprofits about giveaways. Several such events are still scheduled around metro Atlanta.

“The need is often just as great in areas that you don’t expect,” Majors said. “And if you can’t afford Wi-Fi in your home, talk to the school.”

Many school systems (including DeKalb, Fulton, APS and others) offer portable devices or WiFi hotspots to families who don’t have internet connections at home. And it’s possible the teacher may allow some children to turn in work manually, Majors added.

“The most important thing is that the student learns, and pretty much everyone will work with parents to make that happen.”

Back-to-school assistance

  • Fountain of Hope solicits and distributes surplus food to nonprofit agencies serving the needy in Metro-Atlanta. It's hosting Back To School BOOM! this weekend, where it will give away school supplies. Families are asked to register in advance at
  • Southwest Library, 3665 Cascade Road in Atlanta is hosting Professionals Assisting Youth Inc.'s annual Back-to-School Workshop on Aug. 24. Students will receive free school supplies and learn study skills, writing skills, how to identify their learning style, and other strategies.
  • The Gwinnett County Public Schools' Hispanic Mentoring Priority Program is hosting a Back2School Bash on Aug. 24 at Meadowcreek High School. Nury Crawford, director of academic support, will be sharing the mission and vision of the program, as well as ways in which to get involved. There will be a school supply giveaway.