The School Fee Debate

(Written in April 2011)

Throughout his 22 years teaching, John Notten has never charged his students fees that go towards the school budget.

He believes student fees enhance education, and Notten is adamant that charging them are acceptable if they’re for things students can keep for themselves.

With the recent reports about Ontario’s publicly-funded schools charging prohibited fees on courses leading to graduation, the art teacher is frustrated by the notions given by the media that schools are squeezing students with user fees for basic materials.

While that may happen in some schools, Notten insists that it’s not true with the $30 fee he charges for art supplies the students can own for themselves.

“We only use student-generated fees to give things directly back to the students,” says Notten, who teaches at Mary Ward Catholic Secondary School in Toronto.

“We give them a kit of materials like a sketchbook, pencil set, and brush set.  We never, ever, use this money to buy Mac computers or other equipment that they don’t actually get to take home.”

While he notes the government supplies a block budget for the school and his department to buy basic materials such as paper, glue and paint, Notten still thinks the money allotted isn’t enough to provide the best quality of education for his students.

“I personally don’t think we should lower the level of education to the lowest common denominator.  If the government properly funded schools, there would be no need to ask for fees.”

Art is just one of many classes that have been up for debate in terms of course fees.

Ever since parent-led organization People for Education conducted a study that saw Ontario secondary schools charging fees for courses required for graduation, the Ministry of Education released a guideline at the end of March highlighting which activities, programs or materials are ineligible for fee charges.

While art is a course that leads to graduation, Mike Feenstra, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education, says fees can be charged for special materials.

“There are optional things like student agendas, yearbooks, student activity fees and optional art and music supplies that can be charged for,” he says.

“Any textbook fees or deposits are not eligible.  Any materials required for the completion of a curriculum course required for graduation as well as registration and administration fees for enrolling in regular school programs cannot be charged for.”

But even though the guidelines given by the ministry clarifies that additional materials can be charged, there are still some loopholes regarding what those “enhancements or supplementary learning materials” are.

“There are a lot of grey areas in terms of how the rules allow you to charge fees.  You can charge fees for enhanced materials for a course and you can still charge fees for student activities and student extracurricular activities,” says Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education.

“Now where that’s worrying is, how do you decide what are the special materials?  Does that mean that in some cases, certain kids get those special materials and some kids get whatever things that aren’t charged for?”

Although the guidelines appear vague, Feenstra confirms that school boards are continuing to match their policies with the ministry’s and advises parents to look closely at what boards are charging for.

“If parents feel that (certain things) shouldn’t be charged, then they should bring that up with the school.  If they’re not satisfied, then speak with the board about the situation.”

While the guidelines provide clarity for school boards, Maria Bun, president of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, notes that mandatory curriculum materials can be different for certain schools.

“Even with the new guidelines, there are still ways that teachers and schools can get around that and charge fees for things like workbooks and course packs.”

Even so, there are still concerns about the level of education being lowered for students or programs being cut.

To ensure this doesn’t happen, Kidder and members of her organization have suggested the ministry to lay out a clear outline of what should be available for all schools and students at no cost and to have students pay fees voluntarily.

Bun, 17, also thinks student activity fees should be optional as not all students participate in extracurriculars or student council activities.

“In the case of extracurricular activities, you definitely can’t force them to pay for something they don’t want to be supporting,” she says.

And while many students are also unable to pay for student activities, Bun says students should not be prohibited from them either.

“Though I don’t think it should be mandatory for everyone (to pay), I would say that most students deserve having alternatives if they can’t afford paying those fees.”

According to People for Education’s parent support and volunteer coordinator Jacqui Strachan, most schools do have alternatives or make accommodations for students.  However, many students and parents don’t know they exist or are too embarrassed to ask for them.

“There’s a lot of stigma with having to go and beg for subsidies.  They (schools) try to accommodate students with low income, but it’s not exactly the easiest thing in the world to ask for.”

At Mary Ward, Notten says he makes it very clear for his students to speak to him for an arrangement if they can’t afford certain things like an art kit or a field trip.

“In our department, we just absorb it.  We can just go into debt paying for kids who can’t pay.  We just try and make do,” he says.

But if it’s for something that requires more money, Emmy Milne, a spokesperson for the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB), says students can go to the school’s parent council and ask for financial help.

“Schools have provisions either through the parent committees or through the school budget itself to support those students so that they don’t miss out on a learning opportunity.  They want to make sure all the students can participate,” says Milne.

And even if schools and councils are unable to provide accommodations for students, Notten mentions that the TCDSB has a charitable organization called The Angel Foundation for Learning that fundraises money to help those in need.

“The Angel Foundation does a lot of fundraising to help kids who can’t pay for things to everything from uniform, to trips, to specialized equipment.  They do really fabulous work.”

And while Notten feels bad for charging his students money, he says he’s never had a complaint about the $30 fee he charges for art kits.

“The fact that our kids can afford it doesn’t inhibit anybody else from doing what they want to do.  Just because our kids are paying for it, it doesn’t stop anybody else from doing the program.  Why should we limit and lower ourselves to the lowest common denominator when we can in fact afford it? ” he says.

Despite concerns about the level of education decreasing, Feenstra ensures it won’t happen as the government has increased education funding for next year by 46 per cent.

“We’ve increased funding for education by $6.6 billion per year, per board.  We feel that is an incredible increase in funding and boards should be able to with that money, provide the resources and materials necessary to produce a high quality level of education.”

And although schools are prohibited from charging fees for compulsory courses, Feenstra notes that schools are still able to fundraise.  Currently, a draft for fundraising guidelines has been released but is still being reviewed. A final draft will be released later this year.

But even with increased education funding, Grade 12 student and aspiring artist Jan Cruz still thinks fees are necessary as “it helps the school achieve.”

Never having felt any burdens from paying school fees throughout his five years at Mary Ward, Cruz, 19, would not have been able to produce portfolios required for university applications without the enhancements provided from the art department.

He says that if a student is passionate about an activity or specialized course, nothing should stop them from finding ways to participate, despite the costs.

“If the person has the motivation to do it, then they should do it.  They (administration) can’t say no. You’re a student.  You have a right to learn what you want to learn.”

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