School fees in Alberta triple in five years

The out-of-pocket cost of sending a child to public schools in Alberta nearly tripled in five years as boards became increasingly dependent on fees to meet their budgets, according to new figures from Statistics Canada.

Parents around the province shelled out an average of $240 per student in 2012 to cover the cost of mandatory charges levied by all school districts — public, separate and francophone — for everything from busing to textbooks.

In 2008, the average fees were just over $80 per child.

By comparison, fees levied by school boards elsewhere in Canada rose by a modest 28 per cent over the same time period to just over $54 per child.

Liberal critic Kent Hehr said he wasn’t surprised by the fast-rising fees and the fact that Alberta parents pay nearly five times more than the average in other jurisdictions around the country.

“This government nickels and dimes its residents to death with user charges despite its much-touted claim of offering them a tax advantage,” Hehr said.

“For a family with three kids, these regressive taxes are as much as one of their monthly mortgage payments and represent a tremendous burden.”

The data released Wednesday by the federal agency also reveals Alberta is unique in requiring parents to pay a rising and significant proportion of the cost of public education.

In 2012, fees represented just 0.6 per cent of school board revenues in the other nine provinces and three territories.

By comparison, parents in Alberta were forced to dig into their wallets and purses that year to cover 2.1 per cent of their children’s schooling costs.

That was a three-fold increase in the proportion of revenues raised from fees in 2008, while elsewhere in the country the percentage of money that came directly from parents was almost unchanged over the five-year period.

The new figures come more than a decade after a blue-ribbon panel said Alberta should prohibit fees for the basics and cap charges for optional items inside the province’s public education system.

The release also comes amid the Progressive Conservative government’s public consultation about new regulations that reject the recommendation of the 2003 Alberta Commission on Learning and instead further free school boards to levy charges so long as they “consult” parents and “demonstrate” the money is needed.

Education Minister Gordon Dirks declined to be interviewed for this story, and referred questions about the proposed fee regulations to his department.

Tamara Magnan, spokeswoman for Alberta Education, said concerned parents have until the end of January to submit their thoughts on the proposed rules.

“We will evaluate the feedback and determine whether adjustments to the regulations are required,” Magnan said.

The new Statistic Canada figures show Alberta school boards levied $142.6 million in fees in 2012, compared t0 $46.1 million in 2008.

Alberta now raises 39 per cent of all school fee revenue in Canada, with only 13 per cent of the country’s kindergarten to Grade 12 students.

The Herald used enrolment head counts from the agency for the associated academic year to calculate the average per student fee numbers cited in the story.

Wildrose critic Drew Barnes said his party would outlaw most of the mandatory charges that boards now charge for supplies, transportation and noon-hour supervision and find savings to cover the shortfall by eliminating wasteful spending elsewhere in government.

“The fact that these school fees have increased during a period when this province had record revenues is just not fair to the average Alberta family,” Barnes said.

“We would allow reasonable fees for extracurricular activities, but when it comes to mandatory subjects these fees need to be scrapped.”

mmcclure@calgaryherald.com

Twitter.com/mattmcclure2

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