05/27/2013 10:54 EDT | Updated 07/27/2013 05:12 EDT

Fees, fundraising increase gap between Ontario's have, have-not schools: report

TORONTO - The reliance on fees and fundraising in Ontario public schools is creating a two-tier system that limits poorer students' access to special programs and extracurriculars, despite the province's efforts to level the playing field, a new report says.

The annual report released Monday by the independent advocacy group People For Education says there's still a big difference between what's offered at schools in wealthier areas and those in less affluent ones — something that can affect students' chances in the future.

The average family income at a school influences students' odds of participating in gifted and French immersion programs, extracurricular activities and even some classes, such as academic-level math, the document says.

"Those are all core components of that broader education that really makes a difference to students ... not just when they're in school, but in their lives," says Annie Kidder, People For Education's executive director.

"They're more likely to be engaged, for one thing, which means they're more likely to do better, but it also gives them a deeper kind of learning," she says.

In Ontario elementary schools, the average family income is about $82,000, but that number drops to just under $44,500 in low-income schools, according to the findings. That's less than a third of the norm in richer schools, where the average family income comes close to $152,800.

And though schools aren't allowed to charge for materials required for the core curriculum, the report says imposing fees and fundraising for other activities "increases the gap between 'have' and 'have-not' schools."

Schools with a richer student body can collect more money, which translates into more sports, arts and other programs, it says.

"The majority of schools charge fees — for everything from field trips to sports — and the majority provide some form of subsidy for students who can’t pay," the study reads.

"But there is no overall system in place to ensure that fees don’t prevent students from fully participating in school life," it says.

In some cases, educators rely on "quiet conversations" with parents to arrange subsidies for poorer students, while others force recipients to complete volunteer work in exchange for financial help, it says.

Since the province barred fees for mandatory courses in 2011, the number of high schools collecting lab or material fees has dropped to 41 per cent from 68 — a "dramatic decrease," Kidder says.

"Where there was a kind of grey area left in the policy is that you can charge fees for so-called enhanced materials," which aren't clearly defined, she says.

Roughly a quarter of schools continue to charge for art, health and physical education, while nearly 20 per cent do so for design and technology courses, music classes and family studies, the report says.

Five per cent charge for science and a handful report fees linked to business, English and math courses.

At the elementary level, 91 per cent of schools ask students to pay for field trips and 52 per cent for extracurriculars, it says.

Education Minister Liz Sandals says she expects school boards to "develop programs that allow the opportunity for all students to participate and minimize fees as much as possible."

When it comes to fundraising, boards have the authority to pool donations across their properties and redistribute as needed, which could narrow the gap between richer and poorer schools, she says.

Sandals also says the province offers financial assistance based on family income through the Learning Opportunities Grant, but the report says the money is going to programs for all students.

It recommends the creation of a new grant focused on programs proven to "mitigate socio-economic and ethno-racial factors affecting disadvantaged students."

The report, titled "Mind The Gap: Inequality in Ontario's Schools," is based on a survey of more than 1,100 elementary and high school principals across the province. That represents nearly a quarter of Ontario's public schools.

It also includes demographic data from Ontario's Education Quality and Accountability Office, an independent agency that administers provincial standardized tests.