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5 Hidden Costs of Public High School

Just because you aren't paying tuition doesn't mean a public school education is free.

Paying for high school can get expensive for parents.

Expenses for your teen’s education may add up faster than you expect.

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With two sons already through public high school, mother of four Tamara Krause assumed she knew what to expect as her daughter entered Florida's Paxon School for Advanced Studies.

As her daughter received rigorous preparation for college during the school day and participated in lots of extracurriculars after, her mother planned to be squirreling away money saved by attending a charter school in a future college fund. 

But it wasn't too long into her daughter's freshman year of high school that Krause realized she'd been mistaken. "The money we had hoped to save, we're spending on things we did not anticipate to be spending at the high school level," Krause says. 

"At this rate, I will spend her college fund paying for her next three years of high school." 

[Explore the new rankings of Best High Schools.] 

Attending a public high school is likely more expensive now than when today's parents were in school—and maybe even more than when their older children were enrolled. Public high schools, like public colleges, have been victims of recent budget cuts at the state and federal level, and the slashes are likely to continue in the future, according to the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). 

"In addition to cuts, and in some ways to try to somewhat make up for cuts, districts are either eliminating fees that they used to [subsidize] ... or they're increasing existing fees to higher levels," says Daniel Domenech, executive director of AASA. "All of this obviously has an effect on the pocketbook of the family or the students themselves." 

Each district may vary in terms of fees and charges, so the hidden costs below are not a guarantee of what you'll pay. Still, these are some of the most common costs parents have to pay—sometimes unexpectedly. 

1. Modern school supplies: Gone are the days when students were set for school with a three-ring binder and some No. 2 pencils. Now, parents say they're making expensive runs to local craft stores each time a project is assigned and are even furnishing their students with their own laptops. 

"You have to have a computer, and then you have to have the programs the school runs," says Jodi Drange, a parent from Montana whose daughter goes to Laurel High School. "They never have enough time at school [for assignments] and they won't get their project turned in unless they can work on it at home." 

If your child needs a laptop, consider a refurbished model that can be significantly less expensive, Florida parent Krause recommends. 

2. Extracurriculars: For the Krauses, costs of the fall play, the spring musical, and a trip for a thespian group competition were straining the family's budget. 

"[My daughter] was talking about also wanting to get into softball, and we were like, 'Well, we don't know if we can afford the equipment if you want to continue to do drama,'" Krause says. "It's getting ridiculous, cost-wise, to continue to fund all these things through the school." 

Participation in important but increasingly costly after-school programs may necessitate a family conversation, says Carol Ranft, a mother who lives within Georgia's Gwinnett County Public Schools district and who was paying $450 a year for her son to play lacrosse. 

"I think that's probably one of the bigger questions for parents: As the cost of those kinds of activities increase, are their students willing to put in their time and effort into a cause or an activity?" Ranft asks. "Is it as worthwhile to them for their time as it is for the parents' cost?" 

3. College prep: It's important for college-bound high schoolers to be ready for their next step, but taking Advanced Placement tests, which cost $87 each, PSATs ($14), and SATs and ACTs ($49 and at least $34, respectively) can get expensive. 

[Get tips on college test prep.]

"Fifty dollars doesn't seem that bad, but most kids take [the SAT] two or three times before they apply to college, so that can add up," notes Karen Schoonover, chief academic officer and principal of Pennsylvania's New Hope Academy Charter School, where low-income students get test fee waivers. If testing costs will be an issue for you, investigate waiver options with your school's guidance counselor, Schoonover recommends.