Thursday, June 29, 2006

Court case should mean end of class fees and charges

VICTORIA - Education is supposed to be the great equalizer. All children are should get the same chance to make the most of their abilities.
That’s why a new legal effort to win a ban on class fees in B.C. makes sense.
Greater Victoria school trustee John Young is behind the push. The 85-year-old former teacher and principal probably drives his peers nuts with his anti-fee campaigns. He even sued his own school district over the issue.
But Young is right. We’ve decided that a public education system is important. MLAs passed the School Act, which says it’s illegal to charge for classes or the “educational resource materials necessary to participate.” The next budding math genius shouldn’t be shunted aside because his parents can’t afford the class fees.
The B.C. Supreme Court has already ruled on the issue. Young took the Victoria school district to court in 1997 over various fees charged students. Against the law, he said.
Justice Montague Drake agreed. He rejected the district’s arguments about why it’s OK to charge kids to take classes, including the defence that making students pay for materials needed in a course was legal. If the supplies are needed to complete the course, then you couldn’t charge for them. "There should be, then, no charge for the materials used in educational programs," wrote Drake.
The Victoria school district accepted the ruling and came up with a policy fees that met the legal requirements of the School Act. The lost money hurt, but didn’t have any dire consequences, according to the superintendent.
But the government tried to give school districts an out. Cabinet passed an order that said fees for musical instrument rentals, some school supplies and materials to be used in projects that will eventually be taken home by a student are OK. Schools across B.C. have taken that as a licence to charge fees. (Some readers are undoubtedly clenching their fists and muttering darkly about Gordon Campbell’s attack on public education. I should remind them this was 1997; the NDP cabinet passed the order that tried to legitimize user-pay education.)
That’s what Young is challenging, seeking a court declaration that the fees are illegal.
It’s not just a fuss about principle. The fees matter. Students who want to take a course in tourism are asked for $50. Vancouver students can be charged $100 to take calculus and $150 for physical education. For a parent on limited income, already coping with back-to-school costs, it’s a big burden.
School districts exempt poor people from the fees. But should they have to plead poverty? And do their children instead just opt to avoid classes that cost money?
There’s no real equality of opportunity. A child who grows up in a stable family that visits the library every Saturday morning and takes preschool music and gym will have a better chance than a child without those opportunities. Schools in affluent neighbourhoods can count on parents to raise a lot of money to give their kids a better education. Schools in inner-city neighbourhoods or in struggling resource communities can’t count on the same support. Parents there just don’t have the money and connections to raise big money for their schools. Tough luck for those students.
For now, that’s life.
But public school is where every child gets a chance. It takes work, but they can shine. Their abilities and effort matter more than their background.
If it’s worth teaching children something in school, it’s worth making sure they all get the chance. Some 11-year-old kid desperate to learn to play the flute shouldn’t be shut out because her mum doesn’t have the fee charged for the class. A math whiz shouldn’t avoid calculus because it costs too much.
This is B.C. in 2006, one of the most privileged places on Earth. How can we say we don’t want to pay for children’s education?
Footnote: It’s the time to end fees. School districts are desperate for revenue, signing deals with soda companies, pushing parents’ fundraising and even starting risky overseas businesses to try and raise revenue. If the practice isn’t stopped now, fees will become a more and more important source of revenue until they are too significant to eliminate.


Anonymous said...

Way to go John. The province has money for some weird and wonderful programs, why restrict kids from programs. Bill Bennet did a bit of an overun of 500 millions on a highway. Glen Clarke's fast ferries ran into overrun of a large amount.The sky is the limit with Gordon Campbell and the two week Olympic games. No big deal says some folks. Yet the kid with ability gets nothing and left behind unless the family has the dollars. Just how much more will it cost the government, and school system to level the field? No matter what it costs, come up with the dollars.The future is in those schools and they young minds that will run things in a few years.

deaner said...

Yeah - that's just great. Instead of having -say- a shop class that you have to pay $50 for to cover materials (and that some parents have to go in and ask for help with) we just won't have the class at all. Boy, is this a great country, or what?

Anonymous said...

Well said, Paul! A good solid public education system that offers *every* child equal access and an opportunity to succeed is worth fully funding. As taxpayers and citizens, we'll reap the rewards of investing in our country's future many times over. Wish we could say that with as much certainty in reference to all the mega-investments that we make, without batting an eye, in our non-human capital.

Anonymous said...

deaner's right. I'm a shop teacher and my supplies budget is twenty dollars per student. I spend every penny of that on sandpaper, glue, screws, replacing broken and worn out tools, etc. There is no money in my school's budget to supply students with free materials in material intensive courses. Although I too believe that a public education should be absolutely free, if John Young wins, and the government doesn't replace the lost revenue or change the School Act to reflect current practice, shop and home ec. courses will die. Ironically, these are often the very courses that keep disadvantaged and at risk kids coming to school.

Anonymous said...

Deaner and Anonymous (8:25) seem to have a point, but it's illusory. For starters, the Victoria School Board did not find it necessary to drop the classes that it was required to provide free of materials fees, so any board that did decide to drop the courses would have some explaining to do.

It could be, of course, that some boards would just drop the courses out of bloody-mindedness, to shine a little more light on the government's reluctance to fund education appropriately. I don't doubt Anonymous when he says there's no money in his school's budget for supplies, but surely the point is that there should be. If it takes the possibility that these courses woule be unavailable to everyone, rather than just those who can't afford the $50 or $100 or whatever, to galvanize parents in general to remind the government of its responsibilities, it may be worh the exercise.

And as to extra fees, what unusual supplies are required for calculus? Maybe an extra large eraser, but I don't remember anything remarkable along those lines when I took calculus ...

deaner said...

"the Victoria School Board did not find it necessary to drop the classes that it was required to provide free of materials..."

Yeah - instead, they give each parent a list at the beginning of the year of what materials the student is required to provide. Look, if a student uses consumables somebody is going to pay for materials, since they don't come for free. Either the school pays for it - and since the per-student allowance is not going to change depending on the outcome of this case, that means reducing the spending on other students - or parents are going to pay for it directly. The only other alternative is to say, "sorry, no shop classes - or sewing, photography, community rec, etc; pick your favourite activity that requires consumables or out-of-school activity. This decision just means that we don't get the advantage of standardized supplies or wholesale purchasing; some improvement.

You're right Dave - it will galvanize me as a parent to lobby my MLA to provide the current treatment - under the notwithstanding clause if necessary. There is no reason why any family can't come up with $100 if it is required for their child's education - and if they really, really, really can't, they are free to approach the school about it; so far, other than one crank in Victoria, the system has worked pretty well, and with no complaints.

Anonymous said...

As companies scramble for tradespeople it shows the insanity of stoppping programs like shop training. Sure a lot of the kids that take such courses at the lower class levels may never become tradespeople but many might who if such courses didn't exist would never consider that route. a recent announcement of 5 to 10 dollar an hour raise in basic pay of tradespeople on top of 25 to 35 a hour not counting benefits should keep parents with kids in school pounding on some doors to keep such courses going, and if the province which comments often about trade shortages were sensible they would come up with the cash. I don't wish to neglect such courses as music and others. To pay extra for calculus really blows me away. How many professions need advanced math? A great number. We will watch John's court case with interest

Anonymous said...

Anonymous shop teacher, 8:25

I'm sorry Dave, but, looking at the Victoria school board website, it appears that students attending public school in Victoria do have to pay for their supplies. In addition, checking the course descriptions for Vic High turns up a note for senior construction classes that warns students they will have to pay for their materials. As I've said before, I believe in free public education. But, looking at this issue from the inside I don't believe that any board can absorb the costs of these supplies.

Hmmm ...

I've just done a rough calculation of what the Technology Education Department at my school must have taken in for materials fees: $15,000. The school's entire replacement/capital/textbook budget (student population 750) isn't more than $25,000. This budget covers furniture (one classroom $8,000), textbooks (class set $1,500 to $3,000), equipment (2 stoves for Home Ec $1,500).

The money isn't there. Write your MLA.

Anonymous said...

I have to confess, I didn't check the VSB web site, but if they are indeed charging for supplies after the Supreme Court told them it was illegal, they must have a lot of faith in their lawyers.

I do think that Anonymous Shop Teacher has, if you'll pardon the pun, hit the nail on the head when he says, "The money isn't there. Write your MLA." This really is the issue: education goes beyond the "3 Rs" and it needs to be funded adequately so that all kids, regardless of their economic circumstances, can benefit from it. This is a political choice, and lighting a fire under your MLA is the way to influence it. Some fires are harder to start than others though, and in this case I think that Young's suit may be a bit of an accelerant.

deaner said...

"...but if they are indeed charging for supplies after the Supreme Court told them it was illegal, they must have a lot of faith in their lawyers."

I think the Victoria SB's position is that the student is responsible to provide their own materials. Since the Board is not providing consumables, they are not "charging" for them, and hence are complying with the Court's direction. Of course, it doesn't affect the economic constraints on enrolling in classes where consumables are required, except (as noted) to reduce the volume buying and standardization avaialable when one buyer enters the market, instead of 30 (or 300).

I agree with some of the comments in the thread that a charge to take -say- calculus is indefensible; other than a multi-use textbook (like virtually every other school subject) there is nothing required for such a course.

Anonymous said...

A LOT of people just can not afford the fees, can i scrape up $100 for my child's education sure I can, but it comes at the cost of her health, nutrition etc...

I work, I work extremely hard as best I can to get by a single parent of 1, and the costs of school set me back 2 months in other things. She's only in grade 6! My sister a mother of 4, a family of 6, her two kids in Jr high are costing 90$ a piece just to start. Locker fees went down this year, they are only $30 from last years $45. This is not a deposit, this does not cover the cost of a lock, this is the price to RENT a locker for the year, you can not share, you can not attend class until you have one etc... etc... Now we are both working families.

Now consider people on S.A. Please take a moment to visit look at what a majority of children are living in, not just on S.A. but low income working families struggling to get by. I live in North West BC. In a small town, so it's not the cost of living in a metropolis etc.. that others might face.

Please don't assume because you or your friends can scrape up $100 for your children that everyone can. And NOTHING, and I mean NOTHING is more humiliating than having to go in, hat in hand, and explain your 'sob' story to someone, and admit that you just can't afford to HELP your child's education, and if you do, you can't figure out how you will pay for lunches. BC Government has a HUGE surplus, why is education not on the front burner for that surplus?

We need to ask our politicians what their priorities are, and if they are NOT our children and the children of this province, why are they representing us?

I thought about making myself annon. But I decided I have nothing to hide, I work hard and do what's best by my child!

Anonymous said...

Dear deaner - Since money seems to not be an issue in your circles, could you please give me $150 to pay for school fees for my three sons? I re-entered the work force last year immediately after my husband passed away, leaving me alone to fend for myself and three young boys. I earn $8.57 per hour as a cashier at a local convenience store. My total gross earnings each month is less than $1,200, three quarters of which goes to pay our rent and utilities. The remaining $400 goes to cover our food, laundry, toiletries, and other essentials. As a matter of survival, I also receive free food every month from the local food bank as I am almost never able to make ends meet between pay cheques. As you can imagine, there are also often months when I can not afford to pay our phone bill, or if any of us get sick, I have to choose between buying food or medicine because my employer does not provide employees with a drug benefits plan of any kind. A gift of $150, which would be a mere drop in the bucket for a person who comes across as priviledged and out of touch with the plight of the poor as yourself, would certainly go a long way in helping to ensure that at least three boys get an equal education this year. Thank you for your time.

Anonymous said...

Plight of the poor...

I hope you read this again. I wonder if you live in BC, and if so if you are aware of the new rental subsidy for working parents?

Feel free to email me at work, for more information if you need it.

It's not a lot of help, but any help makes a difference.