Twenty-five years ago when I was in elementary school, parents and kids would flock to certain department stores to load up on shiny new notebooks, binders and pencil crayons. It was, if you weren’t the one paying, the one good thing about the impending end of summer.
Now that I have a kid entering kindergarten, I was pleased to learn I wouldn’t have to go on a scavenger hut for supplies.
Instead, I hand over $60 and, voila, my kid has all the stuff she needs. It’s good value for the money, I thought at first.
But the glow of convenience quickly wears off once you realize the public school system is extracting thousands of dollars from parents for basic educational necessities. (You can click here to see what the parent of an Abbotsford Grade 1 student needs to buy.)
Unlike bus fees, it’s not like these extra costs can influence behaviour. It’s just a straight out abdication of the duty to provide the essentials for a kid’s education.
We accept it only because school districts have always been able to get parents to shell out for their kids’ supplies.
I should be clear: As a middle-class parent with the wherewithal to cough up money for glue sticks and supplies, I don’t matter here. But school officials seem oblivious to the psychological burdens such demands place on less-well-off parents. The Abbotsford school district told me “We ensure that no student is denied an opportunity to participate in educational programs or educational curricular activities based on financial hardship,” with individual principals handling such difficulties. And there are charities that donate supplies to “at-risk schools.”
But imagine the shame that comes with admitting to your kid’s new teacher that you are finding it hard to make the supply payment. Imagine, on top of worrying about your kid’s first day of school, trying to formulate exactly how you will ask for help from a teacher you have never met.
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But maybe you’re not a bleeding heart like me. Maybe you believe in cold hard case law.
A decade ago, a Vancouver Island school trustee sued the Ministry of Education over school fees, and the presiding judge made one thing clear about B.C.’s 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.”
This does not seem particularly ambiguous.
And finally, there are the economics.
Consider the lowly glue stick.
Last year, more than 110,000 kids were enrolled in the first three years of elementary school. Between them, they will have required some 500,000 glue sticks – among other supplies. One imagines you could get a decent deal from a glue stick supplier if you turned up with an order for a half-million glue sticks.
But the Ministry of Education doesn’t buy its glue sticks in bulk. Instead, they leave it to the districts, which often leave it to individual schools with far less purchasing power. This whole process also inevitably increases costs
In Abbotsford, each parent is left to fill out a school supply form with student information and payment details. Inevitably, someone receives those forms and processes them. One. At. A. Time.
The glue sticks are then divvied up. Six. To. A. Box.
Parents pay for that time. Kids pay for that time. Taxpayers pay for that time. And for what? So the province and school boards don’t have to pay for the necessities of a public education. It’s not right.
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I asked the Abbotsford school district about all this, including about the legal questions about school fees, and what happens if a parent just outright refuses to pay. They didn’t say, and so we still don’t know what would happen if, to just pick a completely hypothetical possibility, groups of parents got organized and vowed to instead donate the money to a worthy cause instead of paying for the necessities of their kids’ education.