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Ontario clamps down on school fees in wake of critical report

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ontario has outlawed certain education fees and schools are now required to provide detailed accounting for the money they collect, according to new guidelines released Friday by the Ministry of Education.

The rules - prohibiting charges for registration, textbooks, workbooks, musical instruments and science supplies - represent the province's strongest stance yet on the millions of dollars parents give to schools each year.

They come a day after People for Education released a report that found many schools were charging fees for mandatory courses, but fall short of addressing the advocacy group's concerns.

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"It's really hard to see how these guidelines are going to make any difference, there's still a lot of grey areas [about which fees are allowed]" executive director Annie Kidder said.

The only helpful change is a new requirement that schools publicly post fee schedules and details about how the funds are spent, she said.

Through photocopying fees, gym-uniform charges and other levies, some schools raised as much as $90,000; others, many with a high proportion of low-income students, raised less than $1,000. Six per cent charged fees for English classes, which are mandatory in every grade, and 14 per cent charged fees for science, in which two credits are required for graduation.

The advocacy group has called on the province to provide item lists and a guarantee that programs wouldn't be cut because of lost fee income.

The problem is growing, and these fees are on the rise: Student activity fees, which pay for such things as yearbooks and extracurricular activities, climbed to an average of $38.40 this school year compared to $22 a decade ago. People for Education estimates that approximately $26-million was raised in student activity fees this year alone.

"We shouldn't be in a position where students don't want to take art or gym because their family doesn't have that $20, $50 or $100 for a fee," Zane Schwartz, president of the Ontario Student Trustees' Association, told reporters Thursday.

Mr. Schwartz was part of a successful campaign last fall to introduce detailed receipts for student fees at the Toronto District School Board. The ministry has directed other school boards to follow suit, and develop their own fee policies as well.

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