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Why September is the cruellest month Add to ...

Julianne Doctor's teenage daughter was distraught when she came home from school one day last week. To explain, the girl thrust a piece of paper from a school counsellor at her mother. After reading the document, Ms. Doctor was as devastated as her daughter.

Ms. Doctor was being asked to justify, in writing, why she couldn't afford to pay the full $70 to share in the school's hot lunch program this month.

"I had just written cheques for her school agenda, photocopying, workbooks," the single mother with a low-income job explained in an interview. The fees totalled $129.50. "I got caught a little tight on the school lunch program."

The public education system in B.C. is not supposed to present a burden to vulnerable families. According to a 2006 B.C. Supreme Court ruling, programs leading to a Grade 12 diploma should be provided free of charge.

Thanks to some creative interpretations of that law, the "no fees" era means parents like Ms. Doctor are still struggling to pay for their child's public school education.

Her monthly budget stretched tight, Ms. Doctor contributed what she could for September's hot lunches: $40. She sealed the envelope, never expecting anyone to challenge her 14-year-old girl about the matter.

The form sent home by the counsellor was the Vancouver School Board's subsidized meals application. Ms. Doctor's daughter was instructed to "describe your personal and family circumstances that prevent you from obtaining a healthy lunch each day." Parent and child are required to sign the statement.

The experience was humiliating but also infuriating, she said. A member of the district's Parent Advisory Council, Ms. Doctor knows her story is not unique. "Don't say the system is equitable," she said bitterly. "It's only equitable if you can afford it."

A survey of the province's 60 school districts by The Globe and Mail revealed a patchwork of school fees in many guises. There are lab contributions and workbook charges. Rentals for band instruments are common. Vocational programs that might lead to good jobs right out of high school can cost as much as $950 for a single course.

"It's a perversion," said John Young, a Victoria school trustee who brought the issue to court, twice, in an effort to wipe out school fees in B.C.

He said he got involved 10 years ago when he was serving as a poverty advocate. A mother came into his office, struggling to provide for her three children while living on income assistance. "She refused to plead poverty to the school. So the only way she could pay the school fees was if her family cut back on their food. I was so outraged."

For a short time, it looked like Mr. Young had won.

In 2006, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that schools are not permitted to charge fees for any materials, or for musical instruments, that are required for students to successfully complete a course leading to graduation.

Last year, the Ministry of Education rewrote its School Act regulations to comply with the court judgment. But it created a host of exclusions to permit fees in certain cases, including band rentals. So some fees were scrapped, but others sprung up.

GETTING A FAIR START

For parents with low incomes, September is a nightmare month.

Linda Matthews has seen parents weep over the gift of crayons or other supplies to help them send their children off to school with something new in their packs.

"Maybe you remember what it is like," prodded Linda Matthews, "starting school and everyone has new things?"

She was thinking about the significance a child attaches to having new shoes and pencils on the first day of school as she loaded up her Zellers shopping cart for her own children's back-to-school supplies one day, 11 years ago.

As she left the checkout, she started thinking about the financial pressure that annual ritual must create for low-income parents.

Since then, she's helped outfit thousands of needy Victoria children with school supplies through a program she launched called Fair Start.

"A lot of parents I see, they are struggling just to get their kids to school in the first place," she said. "It's all about self-esteem. It's about kids feeling good about heading back to school."

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