Digging into the penny jar to pay school fees (Photo: morguefile.com/mconnors)
Students at a recent high school dance were sent to the principal's office to be questioned about why parents hadn't paid their yearly materials fees. One student from Howard S. Billings Regional High School in Châteauguay says she was embarrassed by the school's actions, and after being held back for over an hour she was unsure she would be allowed to participate in the Royalty Ball attended by some 400 students.
Administration at the school in Montreal's South Shore was unable to say how many students were singled out, but parents were fuming at the treatment of students involved. Principal Mike Helm insisted there was no animosity between the school and students called into his office at the dance. “Do we really want to have the conversation with the student? Absolutely not,” Helm said. “But at the same time, there is the responsibility for the fees to be paid up.”
The question is, whose responsibility is it to pay school fees? Clearly, minor students are not responsible for their parents' chequebooks. It would make more sense to contact parents directly by phone, or by mailing a letter home, than to foist a parental responsibility on a child.
The school is within its rights to deny students access to extra-curricular activities until fees are paid or a payment agreement concluded; however, it would seem a phone call or letter mailed to the home would have been more effective, and could have saved students some embarrassment.
Fees charged for free education in Quebec schools
Quebec law does allow public schools to charge fees for consumable materials like workbooks. Fees for transportation to and from school, for lunchtime supervision, for extra-curricular activities and field trips are also routinely collected. Where meal service exists in a school, fees are collected for this as well. There may also be extra costs associated with specialized programs of study, professional or vocational training or cultural activities.
Fees are set at the school level, and generally differ according to grade level and programs or subjects taken. Many schools offer payment plans or deferred payment of fees, for families who cannot manage to pay all at once in September.
Measures schools can take to keep costs reasonable
- Selecting textbooks that contain problems for class or home use eliminates the need for student workbooks;
- Using at least 80% of workbooks reduces waste;
- Adopting a school-wide standard for writing supplies (e.g. all ruled notebooks, or all binders with refill paper) reduces the number of different school supplies parents must purchase in a store;
- Using only one notebook per subject area helps to eliminate waste that is often seen when teachers ask for a large variety of folders, notebooks and other materials;
- Using the school web site or other electronic means to disseminate newsletters and group reminders that are intended for all students or parents, reduces the cost of printing memos;
- Relying more on work copied from the board instead of photocopied worksheets saves on printing and also allows much needed penmanship practice that is not addressed in the current provincial curriculum;
- Asking families with multiple students attending one school to designate one child who can carry home printed memoranda means no longer sending multiple copies to the same family;
- Changing the default printing font on school computers can reduce printing costs.
Textbooks are considered required educational materials, and as such schools cannot charge parents a fee for them or require them to be purchased. While parents may be asked to buy a dictionary, grammar reference book or novel, no fees should be asked for any specialized or costly materials including math or social studies texts.
The lack of availability of English textbooks, an ongoing situation since the early days of the curriculum reform, may result in students being given photocopied textbooks by the chapter or section. As long as students do not write in these books they can be treated the same as a hardcover text, and no fee should be charged for them.
Parents who have concerns over school supplies and materials costs can address the school governing board to ask for changes in policy.
“High school collection tactic irks parent” Brenda Branswell (The Gazette)