Cash registers are ringing along with school bells

Poor families in Costa Rica are facing the choice of eating or preparing their children for school.

The economics ministry estimated last week that the cost of preparing for school, including uniforms and books, ranges from 41,000 to 124,000 colons. At the current rate of exchange, that is from $82.25 to $249.75.

Most schools require the student to show up on the first day with all the required books and materials. Schools provide parents a list, and families can be seen trying to obtain all the required materials before school opens. Public schools begin this year Feb. 10.

The ministry correctly noted that there are some government programs to help poorer families pay for schooling. The Avencemos program instituted by then-president Óscar Arias Sánchez mainly helps secondary school students. The goal of the program was to prevent dropouts for economic reasons.

Under that program parents and students agree via a contract with the Instituto Mixta de Ayuda Social to attend classes for the full term.

Help for other parents comes from the Fondo Nacional de Becas, which is directed at primary students of families in vulnerable financial situations. The fund makes its first payment at the end of January each year and makes periodic payments through the school year.

Nevertheless, finding families who fail to send their children to school for financial reasons is not unusual. The Ministerio de Economía, Industría y Comercio estimated, based on 2010 household census data, that there were 274,616 homes considered to be poor.

Families where at least one of the parents works can take advantage of another program, the salario escolar. Wage earners can designate up to 8.33 percent of a salary that can be held in trust by a bank or company organization. The big benefit is that the worker pays no taxes on this money nor are social charges assessed. Employers

may choose to add to the money.

These funds are supposed to be returned to the worker during January in time to be used for purchasing school supplies and paying tuition. For lower income earners the main benefit is the obligation to save every payday. The tax benefit would be useless if the worker does not earn enough to file a return. The tax threshold is about $1,000 a month.

The lowest costs, of course, are for pre-school students. The ministry estimated that parents would pay about 30,171 colons for a uniform and about 11,000 colons for tuition.

That adds up to about 41,170 colons.

The ministry noted that for higher grades the tuition is slightly higher as is the cost of the obligatory uniforms. The study was based on a survey of 17 stores in Alajuela, Cartago, Heredia and San José. The surveyors used the official list of supplies published by the Ministerio de Educación Pública. In all cases, the average cost came in above 100,000 colons or about $200. Lists are published on the education ministry Web site.

The ministry noted that the estimates did not include a backpack or clothing for physical education.

So a family with four children in school faces a major expenditure.

Students in private schools get a list, too. Depending on the economic status of the parents, the list may be extensive. Then there is private school tuition that may range up to 200,000 colons a month during the school year, plus other charges levied by the school.

Many students also must pay for transportation to get to school. A public bus is just 100 to 200 colons a day, perhaps 40 U.S. cents. But many parents pay for private transportation, which can range to 50,000 colons a month or about $100.

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