As the coronavirus pandemic continues, the discussion about returning to school is fraught, filled with questions about public health, what kids and families need, and how to operate socially distanced schools. Confronted with these challenges, nine of the nation’s 15 largest school systems, and thousands of others, have defaulted to full-time remote learning. At the same time, public-school officials have demanded massive additional financial support, whether or not their schools reopen. Setting aside the reopening debate for the moment, let’s focus on a smaller but still important question: Just what will it actually cost to deliver remote instruction this fall?
After all, the average cost per public school pupil in the U.S. was $13,600 a year in 2016, based on the most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s the cost of a five-day-a-week, 180-day, in-person experience, which is obviously not what families are getting via remote instruction. Indeed, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that, at the end of May, the typical student received 3.8 hours per week of live remote instruction, with 83 percent of schools also providing instructional packets and slightly less than half offering supplemental virtual content (e.g., online videos).
Given that, it’s worth a rough estimate of what this kind of learning experience really costs. Let’s run through the major components:
Live instruction: Live online small-group courses from providers such as Varsity Tutors or Outschool cost about $20 per hour for classes of nine students. These courses provide direct interactive instruction with a teacher as well as all accompanying materials, activities, and assessments. (Larger classes are available, but those are offered free of charge.) Since the typical class size across public schools in the U.S. is closer to 24 or 25, a cost of $20-per-student for a class of nine suggests a cost of perhaps $7 or $8 an hour per student. If live instruction costs $8 an hour for 3.8 hours a week, using the Census Bureau’s estimate, remote instruction for a full year would cost $30.40 a week for 36 weeks — or $1,094. But let’s assume schools manage to double the amount of live instruction this fall, to 8 hours per week. That yields a cost per pupil of $2,189. Heck, let’s say they triple the amount, to two to three hours a day: That’d be $3,283 (if we ignore impediments such as the agreement that the city of Los Angeles signed with its teachers’ union this spring, which prohibited the district from requiring teachers to do any live virtual instruction).
Instructional resources: Online programs such as Study Island or ImagineLearning are akin to the instructional resources that teachers provide to supplement the lack of live instruction. The annual subscription for Study Island costs $180. This includes practice, assessments, and learning games, aligned to state standards in all core subjects. So let’s assume that schools don’t have or host any of this and that they simply pay for a subscription for every student.
Essential building maintenance: Even if schools aren’t running, some baseline maintenance is necessary to ensure that buildings are operational when students return. The Office of Management and Budget estimates that Uncle Sam spends about $22,077 per year on basic maintenance for each empty government building. The average school enrolls 528 students, which implies a per-student cost of $42.
Meals: During the pandemic, 95 percent of schools provided meals for students (though only about one-third delivered these meals). The School Nutrition Association estimates that it costs $3.81 per student to produce a school lunch and $2.72 per student to make breakfast. That’s $6.53 per eligible student per day, or $1,175.40 per year per participating student. (It’s a bit cheaper in practice, given that reduced-price students pay a nominal sum, but we’ll let that go). Nationally, with 52 percent of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, that comes out to $600 per student. If schools were to utilize local delivery services, with a typical fee of $3.99 (and no economies of scale and no bulk discounts), that’d be $718 per participating student per year. Since about one in six students is getting meals delivered, that’s $120 per student in delivery costs — or a total per-pupil meal cost of $720 per year.
Computers and Internet access: Students can’t learn virtually without virtual access. Since 17 percent of children live in a household without a computer and 14 percent of school-age children lack Internet access, schools may have to fill the gap. A typical student Chromebook retails for about $219, and the average cost of Wi-Fi is $60 per month, or $600 per participating student for the school year. If the schools were responsible for providing hardware and connectivity for all the children in need, that would work out to $38 per student for each tablet and $84 per student for Internet access — or $122 per student.
So, what does remote schooling cost? On a per-pupil basis, we’ve got a price tag of $3,283 for live instruction (assuming schools triple their actual performance from the spring), $180 for instructional resources, $42 for building maintenance, $720 for meals, and $122 for computers and connectivity. Let’s add in $200 per pupil for incidental costs and teacher training — and then another 15 percent for bureaucracy and overhead. That yields a grand total of $5,229.
If we’re generous in our assumptions, fully remote instruction this fall should probably run a bit more than $5,200 per pupil. Obviously, these figures will be higher — or lower — in specific locales. But the bottom line is that, in a nation that spends north of $13,600 per pupil, public schools are delivering something like 38 cents of education for each dollar in outlays.
For school systems that have announced they’re not reopening, any current budgetary challenges come from something other than the cost of delivering instruction, resources, and meals. Now, it’s fair to note that there are issues relating to eventual reopening — staff and system maintenance and such — but systems can provide what they’re currently offering for well under half of their revenues. Any full-time remote district that can’t make these numbers work needs a gimlet-eyed review of district obligations and outlays.
As Congress debates additional federal aid, it’s hard to survey these figures and accept at face value the claim that public-school systems ought to have a monopoly on new federal education funds. Indeed, schools that don’t intend to reopen have no reason to resist sharing resources with the families who are shouldering the burdens that their remote learning entails.
Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Hayley Boling is a research assistant at AEI.