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Many parents feel compelled to pay school fees, even while they feel they shouldn’t have to. (Shutterstock)

School fees undermine public education’s commitment to equity

I’m looking at $85 per child in school fees for the 2019-2020 school year at my sons’ public high school. It breaks down like this: $35 to support clubs, teams, councils and athletics; $35 for the yearbook; $10 for an athletics T-shirt; $5 for an agenda.

The amount may not seem that high, but I know that $85 is just the beginning.

Throughout the year, I’ll be asked to pay for team uniforms, tournaments, field trips, gym memberships, prom tickets and probably more. These costs are on top of school supplies, like calculators and notebooks.

Public schools across Canada charge fees to cover a wide variety of expenses, and many parents who can afford to pay may be willing to hand over the cash.

You may be wondering: “Aren’t Canadian public schools free because they’re covered through taxes?” In fact, all Canadian provinces and territories permit public schools to charge fees for services, programs or resources that go beyond what’s required for a basic education.

My research shows that policies and dominant ideas about good parenting compel parents to hand their money over to their children’s schools, even when they feel they shouldn’t have to. Parent involvement, school council and school choice policies common in Canada and elsewhere promote the idea that parents are responsible for doing whatever it takes to ensure their children’s success in school and, more broadly, in a competitive society.

But not every family can bear the financial costs, so their children may miss out on opportunities that wealthier kids enjoy. Paying school fees may be optional, but enabling parents who pay to get more benefits for their kids undermines Canadian ministries of education’s commitments to equality of educational opportunity and inclusion for all.

Cost of ambiguity: Québec lawsuit

Québec school boards recently had a wake-up call about the potential costs of charging parents: last summer, the Québec Superior Court approved a $153.5-million settlement agreement which found that parents whose children were students in 68 Québec schoolboards had been inappropriately charged fees. The class action lawsuit was launched by a mother from Jonquière.

Through the settlement agreement, parents who had kids in the named boards between 2009 or 2010 and 2017 will see just over $24 per student per school year: so, if a parent had two children in a named board they will receive more than $48 per year for every year the kids attended school in that timeframe.

The lawsuit claimed that fees charged by school boards were in violation of Québec’s Education Act, which guarantees free education to elementary and high school students.

In July, legislators in Québec clarified what the “right to free educational services” for residents does — and does not — include. Notably, after public consultations, Québec’s public schools are still permitted to charge fees for school supplies, special materials, specialized programs and more.

Types of fees

These allowances point to the different types of fees schools charge. First are the fees that every student is asked to pay. They may cover items that individuals will use — like agendas — or activities that anyone can join like clubs, teams and special events. The amounts vary. A report by the not-for-profit organization People for Education finds that in Ontario, activity fees in secondary schools range from $10 to $300 and that many schools also charge athletic fees ranging from $1 to $1,500.

These fees can be barriers to students’ involvement in school activities and sports, especially kids from low-income families. Not participating in extracurricular activities means missing out on their academic, social, psychological and physical health benefits.

Other fees are those charged to students taking particular courses who might want to use better materials, acquire certifications or go on related field trips. The fees are voluntary, but they create two tiers within the same classroom.

School fees can be barriers to students’ involvement in school activities or sports. (Shutterstock)

The problem with waivers

Some governments, boards and schools waive fees for families who can’t afford them. For example, B.C.’s School Act requires that boards have “policies and procedures to facilitate participation by students of school age ordinarily resident in British Columbia who would otherwise be excluded from the course, class or program because of financial hardship.”

But parents might not know about these policies: in the U.S., the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health based at the University of Michigan found that only seven per cent of parents had ever requested a waiver or scholarship for participation fees. The poll surveyed 961 parents reporting on 1,323 children in middle or high school. Families may also not want to ask for help.

Policies that require parents and students to ask for waivers ignore the stigma attached to poverty and financial hardship. Sometimes kids just miss out.

Policies to waive fees also won’t help students who want to successfully compete for spots in some specialized programs that involve competing provincially and years of paying for training, travel and equipment.

Finally, waiver policies help institutionalize a fee-for-service approach in public education. The belief “if you want more you should pay more” is one of many ideas from the private sector now common in public schools.

This kind of thinking both shifts the balance between schools serving public and private interests towards prioritizing individual benefits, and it enables governments to underfund public education since they know parents will make up the gaps.

This is a corrected version of a story originally published on Aug. 21, 2019. The earlier story said only seven per cent of parents had heard of waivers or scholarships for school participation fees, instead of only seven per cent of parents had ever requested them.

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