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Arts Education and User Fees (CTF Report)

Winston Carter


From an early age, children naturally immerse themselves in drama, dance, music, the visual arts, literary arts, and the media: to play, to learn, to communicate, to celebrate, and to discover who they are. The arts foster creativity, expression, imagination, attention to nuance, and the ability to make decisions in the absence of rules. The arts challenge children and youth to grow and experience the world outside of themselves and to consider multiple perspectives.

Arts education is vital – yet often, when school boards face budgetary cutbacks, arts programs are the first to suffer. Financial support for quality  arts  programs  is  shifted  from  the  schools to parents and communities who  pay for them through fundraising, sponsorship, and user fees. This  undermines  the  fundamental  principles of public  education – quality, accessibility, and universality. Publicly  funded  education  should provide equal opportunities for all  children to access a quality education program – and this includes arts education. Curriculum prescribed by  government should be fully funded by that government.

Which is why the recent B.C. Supreme Court decision  upholding the ban on school user fees contained in the province’s School Act is, potentially,  encouraging news.  The  decision  underscores both  the  problem  of  education  underfunding, and governments’ responsibility to fully fund public education, issues that teacher organizations and  other  groups across the country have long been advocating.

The case was championed by 85-year-old Victoria  school  trustee  John  Young,  who  argued that the fees were illegal, imposed hardships on low-income families, and created a two-tier education system.

Most  Canadians  are  understandably  preoccupied with the potential dangers of a two-tiered health care system, but paradoxically the equally  unpalatable  prospect  of   two-tiered  public schooling is deepening its roots across  Canada with little debate about the consequences.

The questions that need to be raised include the legal obligations of governments in Canada to provide public  education, and the extent to which  those  obligations  are   being  respected.

Provincial/territorial legislation should be monitored to ensure governments are respecting their own education laws.

In  the  absence  of  debate,  school  user  fees have quietly become a national phenomenon. A groundbreaking  study by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and the Fédération des syndicats de l’enseignement released this past spring found that  the  majority  of  Canadian schools charge user fees for a variety of services and programs. The study highlights the scope of the commercial presence in  our  classrooms and  the  extent  to which schools rely on outside funding sources including advertising, fundraising, partnerships, and sponsorships – and user fees.

Interestingly, the  B.C.  court  decision  comes on the heels of the Newfoundland government’s announcement  in  September  to  allocate  additional funding to education in order “to eliminate common school fees” and, specifically, “to increase instructional grants to school boards and to cover prescribed  workbooks  and  other   consumable materials currently charged to parents.”

The landmark B.C. court decision should not be used, as it was in Nova Scotia, as an excuse to cut school programs and activities. When the Nova Scotia Department of Education banned user fees in 2005 but did not increase education funding, those programs that had relied on fees were cancelled.

Rather, the B.C. court ruling should send a clear message that chronic underfunding is the root problem that governments need to remedy to  ensure  that  public  schools  can  fulfill  their mandate to provide an equitable, quality education to all students – regardless of postal code or parental income.