personal finances — September 24, 2020

How to Choose the Best Schooling Option for Your Finances

by Susannah McQuitty

Woman trying to decide what to do with school in 2020

When it comes to schooling in 2020, each day brings a new set of developments and challenges. Schools are reacting differently to Coronavirus outbreaks—alternating in-person school days to manage social distancing, face covering mandates and daily temperature readings, quarantines based on testing and contact tracing, and 100% virtual instruction indefinitely.

Through all the board meetings, school announcements and coordination of schedules, parents are struggling to stay on top of everything. How do you make the best choices for your family and finances as situations continually change?

Which schooling options are financially feasible?

The two main components to consider for financial feasibility are your or your spouse’s ability to maintain working hours and the financial demands of different schooling options.

Four education alternatives are consistently brought up: Public schooling, private schooling, pod learning, and homeschooling. Each option has pros and cons, and for many, a hybrid between two may be a necessity. Let’s talk about the costs and benefits associated with each.

Public schooling

On average, parents expect to spend about $529 per student attending public school this year. Due to the number of children served in public school classes, the requirements for materials are difficult to adjust—though many teachers are more than happy to bend where they can.

When it comes to your working hours, public schools are operating on various schedules based on state mandates and virus-containment protocols. For parents who need their children to be cared for outside of the home, public schooling offers a space (at least part of the time) that promotes learning and development and provides safe, affordable, supervised care.

The drawback is consistency. For households with children in different schools, coordinating who is home and who isn’t can be a nightmare. On top of that, schools across the nation have had to manage two-week minimum lockdowns for virus outbreaks; others have had to cancel in-person classes indefinitely. The promise of outside care for children of working parents is subject to change, so flexibility and a backup plan are key to making the public schooling option work.

Private schooling

When considering options other than public school, the first alternative in many people’s minds is private schooling—and in the case of our COVID-19 world, it often offers a more consistent schedule. Since private schools are much smaller in most cases, there is more control on a ground level and less likelihood of the entire school closing for an isolated case.

Private schools also have more skin in the game when it comes to staying open, since there is little to no federal or state funding to supplement tuition. In many cases, private schools are opening up more aggressively to meet demand and keep their doors open.

The downside for parents is that, because private schools depend on tuition, they are more expensive. Full in-person instruction may be available but not financially feasible—however, parents should calculate the costs associated with child care in combination with a less expensive schooling option in order to truly compare bottom-line costs.

There are also many financial aid options available, from tax-free savings options like Coverdell ESAs to 529 savings account funds that qualify for use in private elementary and high school education.

Pod learning

Of the options we’re discussing, pod learning is the most flexible and can be used as a supplement for public, private, or home schooling. The defining factor for pod learning is to have one adult with children from multiple families, usually not totaling more than 10 children per pod.

Beyond that, the requirements, rules, and expectations of a pod are up to the families who agree to meet together. The supervising adult could be a certified tutor who teaches classes or simply a parent who oversees homework and helps where needed. Children can have community while still maintaining the safety requirements decided upon by participating parents.

Similarly, the price point depends on the parents’ decision. A tutor may charge around $30 an hour, or parents may operate on a rotation. Days can be more consistent and better suited to the needs of the families, since the schedule isn’t designed to service hundreds of children.

Curricula could be provided by the public school (if supplemental to public schooling) or determined and purchased by the parents. Controlling the costs of pod requirements is more flexible than with public schooling (and there are many free education resources online, such as services provided by public libraries), but supplies, internet and a space to meet should still be factored into the price of pod learning.

The challenge for many is finding a community of parents who are interested, able to contribute, and trusted by everyone involved. Some parents may not have the strong community with other families that makes transitioning to pod learning easy, and others may not have either the time to take part in the rotation or the finances to pay for a tutor.

Pod learning, then, is best suited for parents who know or can easily get in touch with other like-minded households with similar values in safety and education.

Homeschooling

By far the option with the most control, homeschooling also calls for the most involvement and responsibility. Whether you or your spouse monitors schoolwork or you hire a tutor, the weight of material costs and demand for a supervising adult falls on your household’s shoulders.

But if you can analyze and meet your family’s needs, homeschooling provides nearly universal educational and scheduling control. Different states have different requirements for standardized testing, so make sure you are aware of the expectations for your child’s age and grade level as you design curricula and structure.

Even with the amount of responsibility that homeschooling requires, there is still a myriad of resources that serve homeschool families. Virtual classes and time-honored curricula are available for those who don’t feel equipped for full-time teaching. As long as you or your spouse are present, the amount of your actual involvement is a controllable factor.

For more help on deciding what method of education is best for you and your household, see the CDC’s decision-making tool for parents, caregivers, and guardians.

Keep good records

As legislators debate the next round of Coronavirus relief, there are hopes for tax breaks that parents can use to deduct the unforeseen costs of schooling in 2020. Nothing is imminent at this time, but it’s a good idea to carefully track expenses just in case—expenses like:

  • Wi-Fi boosters or higher speed plans for improved internet connection
  • Space in the home used exclusively for school
  • Laptops and electronic accessories needed for virtual learning
  • Mileage on your vehicle if you must drive to a public internet hot spot
  • Courses, books and other supplies

On top of any potential federal tax breaks, some states provide federal aid for education—be sure to check with your state Department of Revenue or equivalent for more information.

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