Rising Fees, Rising Inequity

This past week two of Alberta’s largest school boards voted yet again to increase fees around transportation and noon supervision. School boards have found a bottomless well for filling funding gaps, parents. Since 2011 the Calgary Board of Education(CBE) has increased school fees steadily, into the thousands for some families. In 2012 then parent Trina Hurdman  appealed to the minister of education Jeff Johnson that fees around noon supervision contravened the school act. http://www.trinahurdman.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Province-to-Review-School-Fees.pdf

On May 22, 2018 Trina Hurdman Chair of the board of trustees of the CBE voted in favor of raising both transportation and noon supervision fees for the fifth year since being elected trustee. Voting this year to increase noon supervision fees by up to 3.9 percent and transportation fees by 4.5 percent.

In Edmonton, despite efforts by Trustee Michael Janz to eliminate school fees entirely, the motion was withdrawn, and trustees instead voted in favor of raising transportation fees 5% over the next four years.

Again recognizing that where the Alberta government is failing to provide adequate financial resources school boards can and will continue to fill funding gaps by tapping into parents pockets. This continuing reliance on fees is concerning on many levels for Albertans. SOS Alberta will continue to stand against fees that are a barrier to accessing public education for the following reasons:

  1. School fees are effectively a user tax that disproportionately and an unequally affect families and even more so families living in poverty. School fees, despite Bill 1(An Act to Reduce School Fees) have only increased over the years.
  2. When school boards use fees to fill funding gaps they absolve the provincial government of their responsibilities to adequately fund public education. When families fill funding gaps by paying fees and fundraising the wheels of education continue turning with the government and public falsely left with the impression that things are running smoothly. But Alberta parents are disproportionately carrying the burden of education costs that the government is failing to meet, and they are left with few options. Parents hands are tied by the need (indeed the legal requirement for kids to go to school), to get children to school, and with no option but to have kids stay for lunch. There is effectively no choice but to pay whatever fees the school board has declared.
  3. While the government congratulates itself for pouring millions into education, funding for growth, extending one time funding grants, and obligating parents to make up the funding shortfalls, $278 million of public dollars continues to fund private schools. This is a clear indication that the funding model is broken. Support Our Students Alberta will continue to advocate for a full review of the funding model. Establishing a funding model where parents are not required to fill funding gaps created by a government underfunding public education.
  4. All of this inequity in fees are symptoms of a public system built on competition and marketization. Inadequate funding for decades in the public system has left schools and school boards vying for funding. Boutique schools, charter schools and private schools all dipping into the same government purse while attempting to provide service for their students by having to outdo the school next-door. This has led to a labyrinth of systems where children travel long routes to schools and are left with no option but to stay at school for lunch and then are charged for this perceived privilege. The fact of the matter is since 2015 families and parents have seen little respite from the financial burden of sending their children to public schools. It is time to review the funding model.
  5. At a time when we should be looking for efficiencies to maximize the funding we have, collecting spare change from thousand of different sources (families) must undoubtedly be the most inefficient way of funding a primary public service such as education. Fees generate millions of dollars in ‘gap funding,’ and the administration and collection of these fees represents a huge inefficiency for schools boards such as EPSB and CBE. Certainly, chasing after parents for fees has time and time again lead to school boards resorting to collection agencies to recuperate the funds.

Once upon a time an Education Minister in Alberta said: “Every child is entitled to attend school and get an education without charge”. That was Dave Hancock in 2011.

On May 24, 2018 current Education Minister David Eggen said “ You do see school fees increasing from time to time, that’s normal,”.  We disagree fundamentally with Minister Eggen, it is not normal. What we are seeing is the slow, sanctioned creep of privatization in our public institution of public education.

SOS Alberta would like to see a long term commitment by this government to redefine public education, in the same way Dave Hancock once did. As free and without barriers.

We would also like to see school boards push the government to do this by taking bold, maybe even symbolic steps to eliminating fees. Someone has to move the needle. Our suggestions, while challenging, include:

  • Motion a full review of the funding model for Alberta Education that clearly is not meeting the needs of students across Alberta.
  • Petitioning Alberta government to redirect the 278 million dollars to subsidize private schools to reduce school fees for the 94% of kids who attend public schools.
  • Revisist legislation that has charter schools leasing public school board facilities for $1/year. This is lost revenue for public school boards like the CBE that lease out several CBE owned buildings to charter schools.
  • Consider a stance on a provincial sales tax so that the user tax of school fees do not continue to disproportionately affect families.
  • Use reserves, acknowledging that depleting reserves would be a bold statement forcing a discussion around the issue, while acknowledging that yearly funds should be used to benefit students in that year, and thereby highlighting whether or not the funds from Alberta Education are sufficient.
  • Stand in solidarity with the ongoing work parents do (IF their school is privileged enough to have a parent council) by attending fundraising events such as casinos, bake sales and cheque writing campaigns. We would love to see Trustees participate in these events to highlight how fundraising has impacted public education.

In our 10 Strategies to Achieve Equitable Public Education we state:

  • #3. Eliminate ALL barriers including all school-related fees (including, but not limited to, instructional materials, bussing, lunch supervision) and application procedures.
  • #10. Recognize that public education is a public responsibility not a consumer good.  Its quality and accessibility should be equitable across the province.

It’s time to acknowledge that no child should have to access finances or waivers to simply get to their school, less so for the privilege of eating their lunch on the hallway or gym floor. While we recognize our solutions are bold, we are asking school boards to think outside the box.

We are asking school boards to defend public education. We are asking schools boards to stand in solidarity with children who can’t afford fees, and parents who continue to fundraise for basic resources. We are asking schools boards to stop taking the path of least resistance, which is to increase school fees year over year.  Parents are currently a captive audience with no recourse but to accept a government sanctioned increase of up to 5% every year.

We are asking public education to be redefined in this province and as long as school boards and the Alberta government sanctions the use of a user tax to fill funding gaps SOS AB will continue to fight this creeping privatization of our public institution.

 

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