My Macroeconomics teacher stressed that nothing is free. This is especially true when it comes to public education in America. The law requires children to go to school so naturally they have to make this service "free" and available to everyone. But has the government succeeded in creating a structured, productive, and free learning environment? Not by a long shot.
This is not entirely their fault. The government supplies schools with a however limited money supply, as it is able and sees fit. But it is the expectations of future employers and demands of teachers who prohibit public school from being truly free. (and the law of economics as well.)
First of all, students have to supply their own pencils, paper, ink, calculators, etc. for a class. Then there are school projects that require poster board, supplies for 3-D models, and gasoline to make trips to the store. Even regular assignments often can not be done without some form of monetary exchange.
I recently completed a science project that required me to have sealed containers for three different biomes, filled with a self-sustaining system that includes plants, animals, soil, water, and whatever else you might find in a desert, forest, or lake. Clearly, this is no small scale project. The species inside the biomes have to survive in a sealed environment (no gas exchange) for 3 weeks.
My partner and I built our own terrarium in an effort to save money but needless to say, our total expenses was no where close to $0. This three week long project, for one of my five classes, cost a grand total of $90.29 (not including the prices of the supplies we already had at home.)
Our teacher made no effort to cut the costs. She only suggested that if we had a terrarium lying around, we should use that. Very unlikely. In my opinion, the project should have at least been a group assignment to help cut the costs instead of an individual/partner one.
With the limited budget for school, teachers are finding ways to tap into the funds of students' parents. Many science classes have lab donation fee letters sent home and are expected to be returned with a check. My required high school art class, ceramics, requires a flat fee of $20 per semester plus an additional $1 for every bag of clay I use on required assignments.
When I built a boat as a physics extra credit assignment, the wood and paper was "supplied" for $5. But the project also required glue and water-based paint as well as tools to cut the wood, paint brushes, and clamps.
If this is what free education costs, I fear for my parents' wallets when I begin college.