Alberta to eliminate 25 per cent of mandatory school fees

Bill 1, introduced Thursday by Education Minister David Eggen, will allow the province to regulate school fees for the first time.

If Bill 1 passes, schools could no longer charge fees for instructional material and busing eligible students

Education Minister David Eggen and Premier Rachel Notley speak to reporters after the introduction of Bill 1 Thursday. (CBC)

Schools will no longer be allowed to charge mandatory fees for instructional materials such as textbooks or busing students to their designated schools, if a new bill is passed by the Alberta legislature.

Bill 1, introduced Thursday by Education Minister David Eggen, will allow the province to regulate these fees for the first time.

The extra costs add up to $200 million annually and have been steadily increasing, much to the dismay of parents who have had to pay the expenses out of pocket each September.

"School fees just went in so many different directions, it was a bit of a wild west out there for many years," Eggen said.

The measures announced Thursday would save families about $54 million a year, or roughly a quarter of that amount — $39 million for instructional materials such as textbooks, workbooks and photocopies and $15 million for busing.

Transportation fees will be covered only for children who need to take a bus to get to their designated schools, a scenario that affects many students in suburban areas, where schools are still being built to accommodate overcrowding or growth.

A family with three children in the Calgary public education system would save $1,400 a year on busing and instructional fees. That amount ranges from $750 to $1,100 a year for the Edmonton public system, since fees are set on a school-by-school basis.

Cost covered by finding efficiencies

Officials say the costs will be covered by the province by finding efficiencies in the system through staff attrition and the elimination of outdated or duplicate programs within the education department.

About 590,000 students will see their instructional fees eliminated and 140,000 will no longer have to pay bus fees. 

The government wants the regulation in place this spring so it can take effect this fall. Bill 1 covers schools in the province's 61 publicly funded school districts.

The province will look at other fees not covered by Thursday's announcement, which include fees for technology, school lunch supervision and field trips.

Premier Rachel Notley said the next step is talking to parents and communities about what fees could be covered.

"I can't make a commitment yet, but I think we've made a good first start and we are absolutely committed to working very carefully, very intentionally, very rigorously with everybody to make more progress on this," she said. 

Boards to be more accountable

The measures will also mean boards will have to be more accountable for the fees they charge.

Edmonton Public School chairperson Michelle Draper and Edmonton Catholic Board chairperson Laura Thibert said they were pleased with the government's decision. 

Edmonton Catholic Board chairperson Laura Thibert said they were pleased with the government's decision, but says school fees did provide revenue to the school board to deliver educational services. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

"We're delighted to see this come forward," Draper said. "We're anxious to work together to see what it will mean in terms of operational funding because those school fees did provide revenue to the school board that we used to deliver educational services."

"What we want to do is make sure everybody has an opportunity to be educated," Thibert said. "We did eliminate fees already and we're just excited that all that money can now go directly into the classrooms to support all our students."

Bill 1 will allow Edmonton Catholic schools to continue its current fee-reduction pilot program, Thibert added.

The board eliminated mandatory fees in 2016, which she described as "successful but not sustainable." Without the bill, Edmonton Catholic would have reinstated partial fees in September.

The Calgary Board of Education is looking for more details to better understand how eliminating fees for instructional materials such as textbooks will impact families and students.

"I'm also a parent who pays fees so that's great for our families. But we need to look at it, specifically at CBE is how will it impact us and my answer is I'm not sure," said Joy Bowen-Eyre, chair of the CBE's board of trustees.

Too soon to celebrate

Lanie Parr, director of the Public School Boards' Association of Alberta, said it's too soon to celebrate.

"I'm just curious where the funding's going to come from," said Parr, whose organization represents various school boards across the province.

Althea Adams, co-president of the Calgary Association of Parents and School Councils (CAPSC), has been calling for the elimination of school and busing fees, but wants to know how the province will make up the difference. (CBC)

She has three school-aged daughters and estimates her family could save up to $500 on mandatory fees and instructional material.

"As a parent, I think it's great," Parr said. "But I hate to see other places cut, so I look forward to hearing more about it."

Althea Adams, co-president of Calgary Association of Parent and School Councils, also has questions.

"We are thrilled that they are finally taking it seriously," she said. "The question at the end of the day is how is it getting paid for? …We need all the money we can in our classrooms, we need all the money we can for our teachers and for them to be able to function properly."

Details about how Alberta Education plans to cover the fees will become more clear in the upcoming provincial budget.

With files from Zoe Todd