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A new national study examining commercialism in Canadian public schools reveals that schools across Canada are attempting to meet the challenge of government underfunding through a variety of private funding sources.

On most measures, a higher percentage of schools in British Columbia than in other province are dependent on private fundraising initiatives. Indeed, education ministry documents show that in 2004–05, BC schools generated more than $185 million from private fundraising sources, and an additional $100 million in revenue from international students' tuition fees.

"We have been raising the alarm bells about underfunding for a few years, but until now we didn't have a clear picture of the enormous amount of private money and corporate initiatives in our classrooms," said BC Teachers' Federation President Jinny Sims. "It's shocking to realize that our public school system in BC is subsidized to the tune of $285 million in private funding, much of it coming out of the pockets of parents."

She added that this research highlights how critical it is for the provincial government to fully fund the provisions of Bill 33. "The initial infusion of $20 million for class size and composition pales by comparison to the vast sums that schools are forced to fundraise to provide a sound educational program," Sims said.

The new study is a joint initiative of the Canadian Teachers' Federation, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and the Fédération des syndicats de l'enseignement, which represents teachers in Quebec. The 40-page report, the first of its kind, is entitled Commercialism in Canadian Schools: Who's Calling the Shots? It is available on the CTF web site: www.ctf-fce.ca

The research team looked at data from 3,105 public elementary and secondary schools to provide the most comprehensive and up-to-date picture of this issue of concern to teachers and parents across the country. Their report documents the nature and extent of commercial activities in schools, and the degree to which public funding is being replaced or supplemented by private sources including school fundraising, advertising, partnerships and sponsorships, corporate-sponsored educational materials, and user fees.

As well as quantitative analysis, the report documents measures taken to address issues such as advertising in schools and the sale of junk food. Quebec is the only province that has banned advertising to children under 13, and indeed the report reveals that advertising, product placement, and incentive programs are much more prevalent outside of Quebec.

The British Columbia results were based on surveys from 565 schools. This constituted a response rate of 33%, second highest in the country. Among the findings:

76% of BC schools collect fees for school trips, 41% collect fees for school programs and 49% collect fees for school supplies.

In 1997, the BC Supreme Court ruled that The School Act requires districts to provide every school-age student with an educational program free of charge. However, BC was highest in Canada in terms of collecting fees for school supplies, even though such fees are in fact illegal in our province. Victoria school district, where the Supreme Court challenge was brought forward, does not charge school fees.

66% of BC schools reported fundraising for library books, 57% raise funds for technology, and 12% raise funds for text books. The figures for Canada are 49%, 35%, and 9% respectively.

A significantly higher percentage of BC schools are raising funds for basic educational resources such as library and text books and for technology.

36% of BC schools participate in incentive programs with corporations, with the most common (25%) being Campbell's Soup "Labels for Education" program. Teachers describe this program as being very labour- and time-intensive providing only minimal returns to the schools, but providing excellent returns to the corporation in terms of branding and product loyalty.

A high percentage of BC schools subscribe to sponsored educational materials, with Scholastic Books being in 67% of BC schools (54% in Canada.)

The study also raised a number of consequences when public education relies on private funding sources.

Inequity: Schools and their surrounding communities have varying abilities to fundraise. Wealthier neighbourhoods can and do raise much more money, thus increasing the inequities in the learning opportunities for children from high- and low-income families. While some schools in BC raised only a few hundred dollars, others raised up to half-a-million dollars in a year. More than $100,000 per year is not at all unusual for large secondary schools in affluent areas.

Funding that is unstable, or comes with strings attached: Private donors may deem certain schools or programs worthier of funding, or may wish to attach conditions, such as advertising or naming rights. Others might apply criteria that exclude some students, contrary to the inclusive philosophy of public education.

Lack of educational quality control: When corporate donors provide "free" curriculum or earning resources to schools, who is responsible for ensuring they are unbiased, complete, and accurate?

Child health concerns: 27% of schools in BC have an exclusive marketing arrangement with Coke or Pepsi. This figure is consistent with the national one. The BC government has made assurances to parents that junk food and soda pop will be removed from schools, but teachers have seen no action to date.

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For more information, contact Nancy Knickerbocker, BCTF media relations officer, at 604-871-1881 (office) or 604-340-1959 (cell).

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