One reason most self-directed learning places (whether democratic schools or resource centers) are less expensive to operate is that they do not carry the same type and amount of administrative overhead. Simply not having to carry out enforcement—of compulsory attendance, required courses and coursework, academic and disciplinary record-keeping, detention, security, compliance with state and federal requirements (such as testing, expenditures, etc.)—saves these places from having to spend a huge portion of their budgets on matters that contribute little or nothing to education. They don’t have to buy hundreds of copies of the same (expensive) textbooks (one will do, if that!), or provide everyone with a computer (they learn to share effectively), or maintain huge and complicated buildings.
Similarly, the educational community itself provides some of the more valuable services, such as housekeeping, marketing and general governance. In democratic schools, a judicial committee addresses disciplinary matters, eliminating the need to rely on vice-principals, counselors and the like. (The adult staff generally do double duty if and when it is necessary, which is not often.) And lastly, these organizations are generally non-profits and benefit from being the recipients of both cash and in-kind donations, whereas typical schools ordinarily buy their (costly) furniture and supplies from for-profit manufacturers. Again, the price of textbooks alone can be staggering.
Another reason that independent centers can be more cost-effective is that many benefit from part-time and volunteer staff to supplement the full-timers. This takes advantage of the highly qualified pool of individuals in our society as a whole—from college students to retirees—who have useful knowledge and skills to share, and the flexibility to come and go as they are needed. Both “professional” and “amateur” staffers have their place in a community of learners.
As for how much of a difference this can make, there is no nation-wide data on self-directed learning budgets, but here is one probably illustrative example. The Sudbury Valley School, in the suburbs of Boston, spends half of the amount per student as what is spent by the nearest public school district.
The cost differential would be smaller if a democratic school or resource center sought to match the resources of well-supplied public and private schools: for example, fully-equipped orchestras, professional-level theaters, woodshops and dark rooms and recording studios, swimming pools and chemistry labs. This is not a path most current places have chosen to pursue. Having material resources is not the most important part of the learning/teaching process, as the output of expensive language and computer labs will attest. (Consider how much is spent “teaching” foreign languages in our country vs. the amount of foreign language literacy there is. And look at how much of the advanced computer literacy has been learned outside of school as well.)
The material richness of various school environments can be a plus. However, it is the manner in which the available materials are allowed to be used that appears to be the more important variable in meaningful education.