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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."

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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.

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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.

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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."

After the 2006 court ruling on school fees, she thought that pressure would ease. But it hasn't.

One sunny morning last month, Ms. Matthews opened the doors at the Mustard Seed Food Bank to start handing out school supply hampers.

At the door she found parents, many with their children in tow, lined up down the block. Some had been there for an hour, anxious to ensure they didn't miss out. She handed out 680 bags of supplies, everything from crayons to calculators. Three other agencies around town have similar programs. "It shows there is a need," Ms. Matthews noted.

FEES BY STEALTH

While many school boards say they have eliminated fees since they were outlawed in 2006, The Globe's survey found districts have found many ways to tap into parents' pockets.

In Vancouver, students are asked to pay fees at the beginning of the year to cover everything from guest speakers to photocopying, awards and mailings. Such charges are applied unevenly across the province. Some districts have opted to cut back on programs, others have developed "special academies" that are exempt from the no-fees policy.

In the North Okanagan-Shuswap school district, a high-school student taking a trade program such as residential house construction can easily pay in excess of $1,000 to cover locker rentals, activity fees, exploration supplies and the shop equipment and supplies.

Over in the Cariboo-Chilcotin school district, there's a range of student council fees, textbook deposits and even parking charges.

But a popular home-building apprenticeship program there is offered free of charge. Students work with local builders and suppliers. The costs are recouped by selling the house. The newest residence is now up for sale in Williams Lake for $430,000.

Still, the Cariboo-Chilcotin district couldn't find a way to charge for summer school classes under the current rules. So it cancelled them.

"As school districts we have to absorb more and more while offering less and less," said Harj Manhas, the assistant superintendent.

"It's a matter of what is reasonable," Education Minister Shirley Bond said in an interview.

Although her government has stated its top priority is to "make British Columbia the best-educated, most literate jurisdiction on the continent," Ms. Bond rejects criticism that her government isn't providing enough money to fund an equal, accessible public education.

"The question is," she contended, "how do you balance ongoing funding increases and also parental responsibility and partnership?"

Responsibility for keeping fees in line with ministry regulations, however, rests with the individual districts.

Ms. Bond has a trio of bureaucrats, called "superintendents of achievement," who are able to help school boards comply with the regulations. But no one in government actually approves the fees being charged in B.C. "They would not go line by line and examine every fee; they would remind boards of education of the legislative requirements, and any specific follow-up would more than likely come as a result of a complaint.

"The best thing I can do is make sure we have a system in place that does provide that opportunity and that it is provided in a way that is sensitive and thoughtful," she said.

THE DOCTORS' CASE

Were Julianne Doctor and her daughter treated in a sensitive and thoughtful manner? Ms. Bond doesn't think so.

"I don't think having a child come home in tears after trying to indicate there's a need in the family - could it be handled better? I think so. Should we have a discussion about that? Yes, we should."

An official from the Vancouver School District would not discuss the Doctors' experience, but said the system works fine.

"We really do all we can to support families through using our funds to help them," said Laurie Anderson, associate superintendent of the Vancouver School District. "No child is ever placed in the situation of everyone in the class having something they don't have. That kind of sensitivity is something that we are very conscious of."

Some educators, however, worry that families are still being backed into a corner over education costs.

"I think there were those who were embarrassed to come forward to say they didn't have the money," said Kamloops-Thompson superintendent Terry Sullivan, a former principal. "And despite our best intentions, I don't think we were looking after those families."

Generally, students across B.C. can expect the basics to be provided in elective classes such as woodworking or cooking, thanks to Mr. Young's persistence in the courts. But if they want to take anything home, or work with something better than plywood and polyester, they must pay to upgrade their materials.

It's the "mahogany and silk" principle, as one district official put it.

In effect, the policy has created a two-tier system within classrooms. For example, a Home Economics class in one Vancouver school lists an "optional lab fee" of $15. If the student doesn't pay, "only minimal tasting samples are provided."

One of the biggest conflagrations that followed the Supreme Court ruling was the fate of band classes. Because many schools in B.C. routinely charged rentals for equipment, parents, students and teachers fretted that the ruling could eliminate music education.

Cam Pinkerton is the superintendent of the Alberni school district on Vancouver Island. A former music teacher from Toronto, he said he was shocked when he arrived in B.C. and discovered that many schools didn't have a stock of band instruments.

"We now have provided music instruments so no student has to rent," he said, although many music students rent anyway so they can have their instrument of choice.

Ms. Bond said the band issue is a prime example of why her government parted company with the courts in some respects.

Ms. Doctor recognizes the demands on the system. She said she would love to see school fees truly eliminated, but hopes that at least the system can learn to apply a little more compassion to families in need.

"I just wrote another cheque for school photos. They say it's optional, my daughter doesn't need them," she said. There's weariness in her voice. "But are you going to tell her that?"

What the law says

THE COURT'S POSITION

"In summary, a school board is not permitted to charge students fees for any materials, or for musical instruments, that are required for students to successfully complete a course leading to graduation. Similarly, any portion of a course that occurs outside the classroom or school, and which the teacher considers necessary for '... the communication of information or knowledge to students ... sufficient to meet the learning outcomes or assessment requirements of an educational program provided by a board,' must be free to the student. Field trips, or other extracurricular outings or events, not considered by the teacher or the school to be so necessary, should be purely voluntary and a school board may charge fees."

- An October, 2006, judgment from Mr. Justice Robert Johnston of the B.C. Supreme Court

THE PROVINCE'S RESPONSE

"A board must provide free of charge to every student of school age resident in British Columbia and enrolled in an educational program in a school operated by the board, instruction ... [and]educational resource materials necessary to participate in the educational program."

- B.C.'s School Act (2007), S.82

THE LOOPHOLES

The 2007 School Act regulations provide the following exceptions:

Schools can charge fees for "goods and services" provided.

Schools can require a deposit for educational resource materials.

Schools can charge fees for specialty academies.

Schools can charge fees for trades programs or require the student to purchase or rent tools, equipment and materials necessary.

Schools can charge fees for the purchase or rental of a musical instrument for the student's personal use or require the student to provide his or her own musical instrument.

However, schools must have a policy in place to help students who would otherwise be excluded from a class because of financial hardship.

Justine Hunter

How six of the province's 60 school districts have interpreted the rules

North Okanagan-

Shuswap (District 83)

The costs

There are supplies fees ranging from $5 to $35 for "personal use" items such as student planners.

Band rentals vary depending on the instrument.

Activity fees are $2 to $30.

A contribution of up to $75 is requested to provide snacks for kindergarten children.

Lockers and lock rentals are between $5 and $10.

Grad fees are considered an optional, extracurricular activity and range from $70 to $150.

Trades courses range from $100-$950, for supplies and/or equipment for personal student use.

The explanation

"Some of the things the kids enjoyed before, they don't enjoy now," superintendent Doug Pearson said. "It's more meat and potatoes now than lobster bisque."

Mission (District 75)

The costs

Each high school has a student package that includes a student planner, student ID card and locker fee for $20.

Graduating students who want to attend their commencement ceremony pay $50 for the rental of a theatre and gowns.

Band rentals are handled by an outside agency; cost varies depending on the instrument.

A popular "food safe" certification program costs $20 and a yearbook costs $45.

The explanation

"We don't charge any fees," explains Randy Huth, director of instruction. Although a certain number of electives are required for graduation, he argues that students can opt for courses that don't cost money. "You don't really need band to graduate. It's a credit course, but not all students need band to graduate."

Kootenay Lake (District 8)

The costs

Elementary pupils can bring supplies or the school does a bulk purchase and they are charged fees for supplies. The charge for day planners is $10. There are fees for extracurricular travel like ski trips.

Secondary-school academies for hockey, dance and soccer charge $500 a year. Some schools charge to pay for expenses for graduation ceremonies and parties. Students must pay for supplies in media arts and computers classes as they are optional.

Two colleges serve the district and may charge fees. For example, in the Fire Suppression course students learn about firefighting. They pay $80 for the college course, but can earn "really good money" working with fire crews in the summer. The school board and ASEP (Aboriginal Skills and Partnerships) pay the college course costs but students are expected to buy equipment, like welders' helmets.

The explanation

"It really all comes down to the details of these programs. The complexity comes, in terms of trades, because those kids are in fact starting their postsecondary education while they're in high school," Superintendent Pat Dooley says.

Nisga'a (District 92)

The costs

No fees in this district run by the Nisga'a government. High-school students provide some personal items such as backpacks; elementary pupils are given school supplies paid for by the Nisga'a government.

The explanation

"It's a Nisga'a sense of equity," superintendent Keith Spencer says. "The economy is not all that hot and we don't want to deprive students of an education, so supplies are provided."

Central Okanagan

(District 23)

The costs

There is a $30 student activity fee at secondary school for a "spectrum of activities," including intramural sports, student council events and cultural performances that are not part of the curriculum. A $10 fee for this is applied to elementary school pupils.

Students pay for specific field trips and sports academy programs, such as travel costs for out-of-town band festivals.

There are no fees for field trips, and no course fees for food in cooking classes, or wood for woodworking classes.

The explanation

"Do parents write cheques to schools for some things? The answer is yes, but I can say it is for an extracurricular event, or buying grad photos, or something that is not a core part of any of the courses," Superintendent Mike Roberts says. "What we are doing is offering from kindergarten to Grade 12 free education."

Quesnel (District 28)

The costs

There is a voluntary student council fee for secondary school pupils of $20.

The district no longer charges for day planners; instrument rental is currently $10 a month.

The district's hockey academy is $90 a year, lower than many others in B.C., because they "got a good deal from the city" for ice time. There are no charges to students from the district for vocational and pre-apprentice courses.

The explanation

"I think there are some grey areas, but we are trying to make sure we're helping the students and adhering to the letter of the law," secretary-treasurer Tim Klotz says.

Justine Hunter and

Cathryn Atkinson

Adding up the costs

Julianne Doctor's daughter had a math test the moment she started at her new high school: adding up the various fees required to get her started in Grade 10.

The fee schedule includes a note saying that parents have the option of asking for assistance if they have difficulty paying some or all of the fees, although it doesn't spell out what kind of means test is applied.

The teen circled her general fees which include charges for mailings and awards.

Her first high school yearbook is optional but hard to pass up.

Then there are the "workbook rentals" for English, French and science. Her mother says the term "rental" is a misnomer. "It's just not possible to keep them pristine for an entire school year," Ms. Doctor notes. And the cost of photocopying the books would outweigh their cost.

THE TOTAL: $129.50

(A bill for school photos would follow the next week.)

GLOBE AND MAIL

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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