Get the fees out of high schools

TheStar.com – Opinion – Get the fees out of high schools
June 16, 2009.   Jonathan Scott, Director of policy for the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association

It’s the hidden costs that kill. We work so hard to find the deal, finding the best and the cheapest cellphone, only to learn about the system-access fee. We invest in education, making it the best and the cheapest, only to learn about student-activity fees.

The cost to learn outside the classroom is staggering. Some students are paying massive fees for sports, drama, art and clubs. Being involved in the life of the school costs money. Being good at a sport gets a financial penalty.

Ontario’s schools have an ingrained barrier to experiential learning. And this systematic barrier is a direct challenge to poverty reduction and to equity in education.

It is a challenge that must be confronted by the Ministry of Education.

The ministry is asking school boards to provide a “snapshot” of the fees they are asking students to pay. Tomorrow, the Toronto District School Board will debate a motion to provide a standard, board-wide fee as a first step on getting control of the issue.

Extracurricular activities are considered simply that, an “extra,” over and above the basic education system, according to current ministry definitions. But we need extracurricular activities in school to create a school community, to let students own their education, to do work of their own volition and to achieve their own goals.

Experiential learning can be the difference between an engaged and disengaged student. We have children fighting obesity, and character education can sometimes best be taught on the football field. We need more access to extracurricular activities, not less. For the sake of engaged, healthy and well-behaved students, the ministry must open the doors to extracurricular activities.

To do this, school boards need to understand the hidden costs of school. More than 77 per cent of schools are charging an activity fee of some sort. And the prices have increased by more than 50 per cent. Most high schools charge at the start of term for an activity card; the average cost is $35. But this “start-of-term levy” is merely the first in a long litany of costs.

According to a study in a school board that serves as a provincial barometer, membership in one school team could cost up to $455 – and that’s for only one team. There is no mechanism to “buy in bulk.” If a student wants to play volleyball and rugby, the costs could push the $1,000 range; throw in involvement in student council or drama, and the student is paying costs more normally associated with university tuition.

Not only are the high costs a problem: the message being sent is detrimental. If a student wins a tournament, she has to pay money for the next tournament. Perversely, a student is penalized for doing well in a sport. This can discourage excellence in extracurricular activities.

And the truly scary thought: these fees are often unknown by school boards. Schools are paying on a club-by-club basis, with no central authority governing the amount charged. The study in the average school board mentioned above showed a massive range among the fees charged in different schools – even between schools separated by a few blocks. The only conclusion from this variance is that school boards do not have a handle on the fees their students are asked to pay to explore their talents outside the classroom.

These fees create a major challenge to equity in education. Some schools are more affordable than others; to play sports at one school is cheaper than at another. And students from lower-income homes face fees that challenge their ability to participate, which only exasperates the trials faced by poorer students in fitting in and succeeding in school.

If we are to create an truly equitable education system that is a key component in poverty reduction strategies, we need to remove these fees from our schools.

The first step should be for each school board to figure out how much their students are asked to pay. Then the ministry should begin to fund extracurricular activities in concert with non-profit groups and other ministries and to phase out the fees themselves.

We need to remove this barrier to extracurricular activities – an invaluable part of school. We need to reach every student in Ontario with a quality education – and that includes experiential learning.

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