School fees another tax

From raising the property tax on education, to promising to abolish the standard school performance exams, Alberta Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk has been busy raising his department’s profile in recent days.

From raising the property tax on education, to promising to abolish the standard school performance exams, Alberta Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk has been busy raising his department’s profile in recent days.

Now he’s saying the fees that schools charge for supplies, special programs and busing each year are overly onerous and, in general, not needed.

He’s reported on Thursday as saying that “all the necessary photocopying, textbooks and busing for those who need it is already paid for by my department.”

He said if local school boards decide to charge (could this be double-billing?) for these, it is a local political decision, “one that trustees will have to be prepared to defend at the polls.”

In other words, the province can download property tax headaches onto municipalities, but local school boards are not allowed to download their need for fees onto the province.

On average, parents pay about $140 per student per year in extra fees in Alberta. The Alberta Liberals rightly label those fees as a regressive tax. That would make two levels of tax in Alberta that have no relation to taxpayers’ income aimed at education — property taxes and school fees.

Families that are well off can pay these fees quite easily. But families with more children, or who are earning something less than the 50th percentile of income, might have reason to dread September.

At a news conference in Calgary, Lukaszuk said school boards should only be charging fees for optional programs that offer more than the required curriculum. He would not say if he would draft regulations to guarantee that.

So what of the argument that public schools are always strapped for cash, and they need the fees to provide the kind of education parents and all of society expect?

Lukaszuk says that ain’t so and besides, school boards need to manage on the funds they are given. End of discussion.

So where would the money come from to cover the cost of needed supplies and programs that when added up, total more than $78.3 million a year in the province?

Well, the Liberals have one plan. They would phase back provincial support for private schools to the tune of $128 million. They would also use provincial tax dollars to recompense boards for the lost cash. That, they say, would be enough to abolish not only fees for school supplies, but fees for individual courses, noon supervision and extracurricular activities.

You can’t fault them for being bold but then again, the Liberals have never had to construct a provincial budget. Let’s just assume things are never this easy (especially for parents who have chosen to send their children to private schools, one might think).

The Wildrose Party would simply write a rule: no fees for anything except optional items, like school trips. Is participation in drama, band or school athletics optional? Wait until you see the rule.

School boards do have programs for parents on low incomes to have these fees waived. In Red Deer, the program is on a sliding scale that depends on income and how many members there are in the family. In a family of four (two parents, two kids or one parent, three kids), you can have all of your fees waived if your income is $35,769 or lower. Above that, and to $42,185, you can have half of fees waived.

This year’s Vital Signs report says that half of Red Deer families earn less than $79,500. Decide for yourself (especially if you have kids in school) if the cutoff mentioned above is too high or too low to allow all children an equal shot at a good education.

It’s good that Lukaszuk and others are bringing public education to the front burners. With an election coming soon, we need to have more on our minds about the province’s future than where the next power line or pipeline will go.

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.

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