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I’ve been working on an interesting project the last few weeks. It all started when I was looking at some old pamphlets and programmes in the Charlotte Mason digital archives (which is a fabulous resource, by the way). The programmes detail the work that students were to do each term and the books that they were to use.
One pamphlet in particular caught my eye. It was all about the “practical working” of the Parents’ National Educational Union, or PNEU, which was Charlotte’s organization for all who were interested in their children’s education.
I kept seeing references to Fees. Soon my curiosity started stirring and an idea started niggling in the back of my head: “I wonder what it cost to homeschool back in Charlotte’s day with her curriculum.”
As I read further, I discovered that there was a fee to belong to the PNEU and another set of fees to receive the programmes and book lists and exams.
OK, the fees made sense. I was making progress. But then the question arose, Did those fees include the cost of books? I thought I knew the answer, but I wanted to make sure. So after more digging and research and discussion with some other CM educators, I confirmed my suspicions: books were not included in those fees. The books were an additional purchase.
But I knew where to find the book costs, because each PNEU programme listed the books needed for each Form along with its price.
Now I was getting excited. I had the pieces to the puzzle. All I had to do was put the pieces together and I could find out how much a homeschool family could have expected to pay for a Charlotte Mason education back then.
But suddenly it dawned on me: I didn’t have all the pieces. One more piece was missing. The fees and book costs were all listed in early-1900s British currency. If I wanted a true cost comparison, I would need to inflate those amounts to comparable modern-day British prices and then convert those amounts into U.S. dollars.
And if a book was used for several years, it wouldn’t be fair to include its cost each of those years. So I would need to go book by book and watch for any duplicates that might save the homeschooler some money. And while I was at it, I decided to leave off any books that Charlotte listed as optional. Let’s just stick to the books that were absolutely necessary.
So that was my project.
Doesn’t it sound like fun?
It was fascinating!
Would you like to know what I discovered? These prices are based on the fees and book lists from a term in 1924, so just after Charlotte died, and converted to 2018 prices. Obviously, this is not an exact science, so keep in mind that these are approximate modern-day prices.
Membership in the PNEU was required and cost about $55 per year.
Families who wanted to use Charlotte’s curriculum in their home schools paid a fee that included a placement test, the year’s programmes and time-tables, rules and regulations, notes, and three term exams. For two of those exams, the parents sent in the child’s exam answers to be evaluated. For one of the three exams, the parent evaluated the child’s answers herself and sent in her own evaluation.
Those curriculum fees ranged from about $150 to $300 per year, depending on how many children were enrolled and how old they were.
All right, book costs. This was very interesting. I pulled the prices from just one programme, but I assume it would be representative of a typical book list. There was great variety in the books to be purchased. Some cost as little as $1.50; others cost $30 or $40. Some were living books; some were reference books—like an atlas, for example; and some were just for the teacher to use in planning lessons.
Here are the book totals. Let’s break it down by approximate grade levels.
Books for Grade 1 cost about $350.
For Grades 2 and 3, about $225.
Fourth grade was one of the most expensive book lists at just over $450, probably because that’s the point at which some new challenges are usually introduced at age ten.
Grades 5 and 6 reused many of those books from grade 4, so new titles cost only $160.
Grades 7 and 8 cost the most at about $525 for books, because the work load was increasing and several new books were added.
But many of them were used in subsequent grades, so the book costs for Grades 9–12 came down to about $375.
Now remember that those figures are assuming that you started at grade 1 and worked your way through the curriculum every year, so you already had the books that were reused in older grades. In other words, those are the costs of only new books on the programmes.
Okay, let’s put it all together and answer my question: How much would it have cost all together—fees and books—to homeschool with Charlotte’s PNEU curriculum?
If you had a large family, with students across all the forms, here’s what you would have paid.
With only a grade 1 student, it would have cost about $550.
With students in grades 1–3, you would have paid around $775 total.
If you added a student in grade 4 (so you had a first, third, and fourth grader), it would have cost just over $1300.
Throw in a student in grade 5 or 6 and the total price would increase to about $1475.
If you added a student in grade 7 or 8, you would have paid about $2075 for everybody.
And if you had a high schooler too—so for a family with six children in grades 1, 3, 4, 6, 8, and 10, let’s say—you would have paid a total of about $2450 in fees and books.
Of course, not everybody would have students in all of those grades. So here’s what it would have cost for a family with just two children.
Let’s say your two students were in 1st and 4th grades. It would have cost just under $1100 to homeschool them both for that year.
If they were in 3rd and 6th grades, you could expect to pay just a little more: about $1150.
If your students were older, say, grades 6 and 8, it would have cost a smidgen over $1400 in fees and books.
And if your kids were in 8th and 10th grades, you would have paid close to $1800 for their year of PNEU education.
At this point your mind might be swimming with all of these numbers, so let me wrap this up with a couple of general observations. After doing this project, here are my thoughts.
First, Charlotte Mason charged a fair price for her curriculum. The PNEU, with all of its facets, was her passion and her calling, but it was also her livelihood. Remember, she was an orphan whose father had lost most of the family’s money in the U.S. Civil War. So she needed to earn a living. She did not give away her curriculum for free—or her teacher training, for that matter. Students who took the two-year teacher training course paid the modern-day equivalent of about $16,000 for that training, which is very close to the average tuition today for a two-year associate’s degree at a private college.
Second observation: the kind of education that Charlotte Mason envisioned for the children has always required a significant outlay for books. Parents have been dealing with that challenge from the very beginning, but Charlotte always thought that the children were worth it.
Consider this paragraph from a PNEU pamphlet in 1928:
“The children use a little library of lesson-books of literary value and lasting interest, and we are constantly receiving letters which say how they delight in these. It is a large part of education to handle good books, and we are sorry when we hear of parents wishing to dispose of books used in such and such a Form; those set in the School are usually of a sort to be possessions for a lifetime. We congratulate ourselves on the sympathetic and generous attitude taken up by parents in this matter of books. Very few grudge the expense, and we believe that most parents of children in the Parents’ Union School feel that it would be better to do without many things than without the best books, various books, and fresh books for the children’s studies. As a matter of fact, the difference between educated and uneducated people is that the former know and love books; the latter may have passed examinations.”
These are not dry textbooks that have limited appeal and an expensive sticker price. The books that Charlotte used—like the books that we use today—are valuable additions to a timeless family library. True living books appeal to a wide range of people and ages; they contain the great thoughts of great men and women, living ideas that feed our minds, expand our imaginations, and nourish our hearts.
Living books are an investment in our families. Happily, we have some advantages over those homeschool families who were buying books back in Charlotte’s day. We have access to less-expensive paperback versions; we have local libraries; we can very easily look for and find used books via the Internet; and we can even download many books for free if they are out of copyright and in the public domain.
I guess the bottom line is this: It has never been easy or cheap to give your children an excellent homeschool education. But providing great literary books and the brilliant education that Charlotte Mason offers is worth every penny.