♦ high school fees in Ontario, Canada

• The six media articles linked below and the three documents that are linked and summarized all concern student fees in Ontario high schools. Most students in public high schools in that province must pay for such things as registration, course materials, athletic programs, school trips and “extra-curricular activities.”

• A large amount of money is raised by these fees — Cdn$26 million for “activity fees” alone in 2010-11 — and some critics of the practice say there is a danger of the Ontario education system becoming dependent on “funding” of this kind.

• Although the information in these articles and documents concerns only one part of one country, it is symptomatic of a widespread phenomenon. In the first place, there is little doubt that similar fees are being quietly charged in many other places even where the practice contradicts a general presumption that public education is entirely free. Secondly, the increasing prevalence of high school fees is a reflection of a worldwide trend toward the commercialization of education — toward making it into a business, in other words.

• The six media articles linked below were all written in response to a report by People for Education, which describes itself as “an independent parent-led organization, working to improve public education in Ontario’s English, Catholic and French schools.” The first five contain information about the report; the sixth concerns the “guidelines” published by the Government of Ontario in response to the report’s criticisms.

• overview of linked articles:

• in the media:

1. Ontario high schools charging prohibited “course fees”[1]

2. Ontario high schools charging prohibited “course fees”[2]

3. guidelines coming to limit fees charged by Ontario schools

4. most Ontario high schools charge prohibited “course fees”

5. 70% of Ontario high schools charge course fees

6. Ontario targets unnecessary school fees

• report by People for Education:

7. The High Cost of High School

• guidelines from the Government of Ontario:

8. Fees for learning materials and activities guideline

• response from Annie Kidder of People for Education :

9. New guidelines welcomed but grey areas remain

• summaries of documents:

A: “The High Cost of High School”
• In “The High Cost of High School,” People for Education describes the various types of fee that students in Ontario high schools may be asked to pay. Four categories are discussed:

• Registration fees are charged at the beginning of the school year. Students must pay them before they can receive their “timetables” telling them where and when their classes happen. Library fees would also have to be paid at the beginning of the year.

• Course fees are fees charged in connection with a particular “course” (for example, mathematics or science). According to the report, course fees have risen sharply in recent years. Often these course fees are for “outdoor education” or to cover the cost of special (and unnecessary) materials in woodworking or art courses. Sometimes however they are “flat” fees which students must pay simply to be allowed to take a particular course. According to the report, 17% of Ontario high schools charge fees for second language courses, 14% charge fees for science classes and 6% of schools charge for English courses. All three types of course are mandatory; that is to say, students who do not take them cannot graduate. Apparently, for many years these fees were declining but, the report says, they have recently begun to rise again. In 2010/11 the average fee for a single course was just under $25. (The report does not give much detail about exactly what the fees are for; it does mention two examples, however: French workbooks and science laboratory materials.)

• Student activity fees cover “extra-curricular” activities — such as dances and clubs and are also used to pay for the production of student “yearbooks.” The amount charged varies greatly from one school to another; in some schools it is as little as $5 but in others it is as much as $100. “The High Cost of High School” emphasizes that like course fees, activity fees have been rising in recent years: according to the report in 2001, the province’s schools raised approximately $15 million from activity fees and in 2010/11 they raised approximately $26 million.

• Athletic fees are an extra expense for students who want to play after-school sports against other schools. They can be as low as $10 but have also been rising quickly. In 2010-11 the top athletic fee was $1800 — more than twenty times the top fee ten years earlier.

• The question of legality: The report deals briefly with the question of the legality of school fees. It refers to a Ministry of Education document that clearly states that library fees and textbook fees are not legal but it does not explicitly say the schools that charge such fees are breaking the law. Instead it refers to “grey areas.” — in other words to practices that are between the “black” of illegality and the “white” of legality. The implication seems to be that although the schools are not perhaps doing anything that could lead to their being convicted in court, they are not acting in accordance with the real purpose of the law which is to provide a free and equitable education to the young people of Ontario.

• Other points made in the report:

B: “Fees for learning materials and activities guideline”

• The Government of Ontario report begins with a strong statement of a basic principle:

“Every student has the right to attend a school...without the payment of a fee.”

Then, as if to make it clear exactly what this principle entails, the report states:

“The costs of materials and activities for elementary and secondary education are provided to schools by the Ministry of Education and should be reflected in school board operating budgets.”

This principle — and the implication that has been drawn from it — are, however, immediately qualified in the following way:

“When the school boards choose with the support of the school community to offer enhanced or optional programming, parents may be asked to contribute resources in the way of time, money or materials to support these programs or activities.”

• The main body of the report is divided into four sections:

i) guiding principles;
ii) fee charges;
iii) best practices;
iv) accountability to school community

i) guiding principles:
the main purpose of this section seems to be to emphasize that although school and school boards are “allowed to offer programming and materials beyond what is necessary to meet the learning expectations of a particular grade or course,” they must do so in a way that respects the right of all students in the system to a completely free education. The report does not explicitly state that such a right exists, but it definitely implies that. It says, for example, that even when fees are used to pay for supplements, “each student should have an equal opportunity to benefit from the education system without being required to pay a fee.” The authors of the report also acknowledge (once again without putting it “in so many words”) that there is a danger of a conflict between the government’s insistence on the right to a free education and its acceptance of the practice of charging fees. They say: “Students must be able to participate in school activities and access regardless of economic circumstances.” and to this they add a strong statement about the importance of protecting the dignity of the students who cannot afford to pay and have therefore to ask for exemption from the fees.

ii) fee charges:
This section provides information as to what sorts of activities and materials fees can apply. (There is no information about how students who wished to participate in these activities but whose parents could not afford the fees could apply for subsidies.)

• The guideline states that it is permissible to charge fees for voluntary activities, materials, and programs which are “not required for graduation.” It also states that, if a student does not participate in a program or activity because he or she has not paid the fee, an “alternative” must be provided.

• Some of the things for which, according to the guideline, fees cannot be charged: registration; textbooks; learning materials such as workbooks, musical instruments, and science supplies; fees for guest speakers or field trips “where the material being presented is “ a mandatory element of the subject or course.”

• Some of the things for which according to the report, fees can be charged: extracurricular trips and activities not required for graduation such as dances, clubs and student council activities; extended unnecessary trips; optional student trips; student agendas and yearbooks.

iii) Best practices: This section contains a list of things school boards “may consider” when developing their policy on fees: a limit on student activity fees; a limit on all fees payable by families with more than two children in school; making sure that when fees are charged for materials they reflect the real cost of those materials; and “implementing a confidential process to support full participation of students regardless of economic circumstances.” This section of the report also contains some suggestions specifically directed toward school principals: they are urged to keep fees as low as possible, to make sure that, if students do not participate in some activity because of the cost, they are given an “alternative assignment” and also, to make “every effort to ensure that all students can participate in student activities regardless of ability to pay.”

iv) Accountability to the school community: the guideline says that “fee schedules” should be “included in fall school newsletters, posted on student websites and referenced in student agendas,” and it also states that the fee schedules should contain information about the purpose of the fees and about financial help for parents who cannot afford to pay them.

C: “New fee guidelines welcomed but grey areas remain”

• Immediately after the government’s guidelines were published, Annie Kidder of People for Education issued a brief reply. She begins by saying that she likes what the government guidelines say — in the final section — about the need for schools to be open and accountable about their fees. And she also praises the guidelines for clarifying the things for which “fees must absolutely not be charged” However, the detailed criticism criticisms which follow show that in her opinion the guidelines do not indicate that the government intends to take seriously her group’s main objections to high school fees.

Her remarks are divided into two sections: “What’s problematic?” in which she responds to several particular points in the Guidelines and “What are the overall problems?” in which she makes some general comments on the whole practice of high school fees.

i) What’s problematic?
(a) The presence of “grey areas” is mentioned. And as an example, Annie Kidder points out that the guidelines say that it is permissible to charge fees for “enhanced programming and materials” as well as for “enrichments and upgrades” but does not “explain what these might be” This is important, she thinks, because the vagueness in the guidelines makes it possible for schools to say that materials which are in fact quite ordinary are really “superior” and so require fees. She also points out here that the guideline’s discussion of this particular point seems to imply that there “can be two qualities of learning material for one class”
(b) Annie Kidder also objects to the guideline’s use of the phrase “may consider” in outlining their fee policies. This statement, she points out does not set a requirement and therefore there is no reason to expect that it will have any effect on fee paying practices.
(c) There is dangerous vagueness too, she thinks, in the reference to students who do not participate in some activity because they “choose not to” (which presumably means that they don’t participate because they cannot afford to). And she sees questionable vagueness too in the stipulation that such students must be given an “alternative assignment”— which, as she says, might amount to nothing more than their being provided with a classroom to sit in.
(d) She points out that there is no mention of athletic fees in the guidelines despite the fact that they are charged in 73% of schools and may be as high as $1800.

ii) more generally, Annie Kidder says that
(a) in her opinion the guidelines, far from improving the situation, will make it worse, because, by implying that the fees are “necessary and appropriate,” they will “serve to entrench fees into the system ”
(b) there is, she says, no commitment in the guidelines to the idea that all students deserve a “rich, broadly-based education.”
(c) Annie Kidder adds that there is “no recognition that extra-curricular activities are a key component of a student’s education and lead to a greater engagement and sense of belonging” and, finally,
(d) criticizes the guidelines because although they do recommend that schools have a “clear policy for students who cannot pay the fees” they still require parents and students who need financial support to approach boards and schools and thus expose themselves to embarrassment.