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The B.C. Supreme Court has tossed out the widespread practice of public schools across the province charging fees to students for mandatory field trips and special courses such as music and woodworking.

In a decision that could have far-reaching implications for the public school system, Mr. Justice Robert Johnston said it is illegal under the province's School Act to ask students to pay anything for activities that are part of their required courses.

The decision represents a big victory for 85-year-old Victoria school trustee John Young, who took the issue to court, financing the case from his own pension. The Second World War veteran has campaigned for years against school fees, arguing that they are a hardship for students from poor families.

"The current situation is a terrible disadvantage for students who are not well off. They can't take the courses they want because they haven't got the money for the bloody fees," Mr. Young said yesterday.

Beset by increasing financial pressure, many schools in the province now routinely charge students for the instruments they play in music class, the materials they use in various art classes and physical education needs.

"Every single course in the school system must be provided free," Mr. Young said.

But Judge Johnston said that, under the School Act, "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."

A section of a long-standing ministerial memo that allowed schools to "rent" musical instruments to students for a fee -- usually from $50 to $100 -- was effectively quashed by the judge's ruling.

Vancouver School Board chairman Ken Denike expressed concern over the court's decision, noting that parents have been willing to pay extra to enhance school programs for their children.

Depending how it is interpreted, the ruling could mean an end to many special courses in the province's largest school district, Mr. Denike said.

"There may be an adverse result. We could end up with less, but a better distribution of less. . . . Can you prevent parents from paying more for their kids? It's a very perplexing question."

Although the decision applies only to B.C., Ontario school-board representative Rick Johnson said a similar edict in Ontario would likely wipe out many school courses currently offered in arts, drama and music.

"Bare-bones" government funding has left the province's school boards with little choice but to ask parents to help fund student participation in these areas, said Mr. Johnson, president of the Ontario Public School Boards Association.

"The problem with a ruling like this is that you get to the point where you're just stripped down to the three R's, and the innovative courses that keep students in the building go by the boards," he said.

"If this court ruling takes away from schools' ability [to charge fees] kids are going to suffer."

Mr. Young estimated that as much as $15-million a year in extra course fees is being collected by B.C. schools.

"A lot of parents just don't have the money," he said, scorning a suggestion that they are often waived for low-income families.

"Parents shouldn't have to ask cap in hand. It's embarrassing and discriminatory."

B.C. Education Minister Shirley Bond said the court's decision is a useful clarification of what may and may not be charged by schools under the School Act.

The fact that fees are often charged in apparent violation of the act indicates that there may need to be better enforcement by her ministry, Ms. Bond added.

"There has been some lack of clarity up until now. We want to make sure that the School Act is complied with, and I think there does need to be some oversight," she said.

There are cases where fees may be levied legitimately, Ms. Bond explained. She referred to a woodworking student who wanted to build something out of teak, rather than the basic wood that should be supplied by the school free of charge.

"There would be a charge for that," she said. "The basic principle is that, if you need something to be successful in your course, it must be provided."

Concerning student field trips, which are becoming ever more ambitious and far-afield, schools may charge for expenses and other costs, provided the ventures are extracurricular and not required as part of a course.

But field trips that are mandatory for a class have to be free, according to Judge Johnston's ruling.

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