B.C. invests $63.8M in back-to-school affordability fund, advocates wonder if it will go far enough

·3 min read
Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside speaks at a news conference Monday where B.C. announced a back-to-school affordability fund over $60 million to cover the costs of student meals, school supplies, programs and field trips. (Simon Gohier/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside speaks at a news conference Monday where B.C. announced a back-to-school affordability fund over $60 million to cover the costs of student meals, school supplies, programs and field trips. (Simon Gohier/Radio-Canada - image credit)

B.C. announced an investment of almost $64 million on Monday to help ease the burden on families sending children back to school amidst soaring inflation.

The money will go toward meal programs, school supplies and fees for field trips.

"This is the first of several measures we will be rolling out in the weeks ahead to help people deal with the cost of living pressures they're experiencing right now," said B.C. Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside.

Sixty million dollars will be divided among B.C.'s 60 school districts, with each district receiving a minimum of $250,000. The province says the school districts will work with parent advisory councils, communities and First Nations to determine funding priorities.

Many teachers welcomed the budget boost, but Jennifer Heighton of the Safe Schools Coalition says school budgets have been steadily shrinking for the past 20 years and that's why the money was needed in the first place.

"It's really highlighting the underfunding ... that's been happening for the last two decades," she told CBC. "So this is going to help, but it's still a really stretched system."

Looking at school funding in other parts of Canada, she says B.C. is holding back.

"Other provinces will spend more of the piece of their pie — their gross domestic product — on education," said Heighton. "B.C. ... [spends] less of a percentage on public education compared to other provinces."

$3.8M for independent schools 

In addition to the $60 million for public schools, the province said it's giving another $3.8 million to support families whose children are enrolled in independent schools. The money will be distributed through the Federation of Independent School Associations (FISA).

Shawn Chisholm, FISA's executive director, says the funding will not go to tuition and will be used to fund student meals, and school supplies, much like the money flowing into public districts.

Education commentator Patti Bacchus questions why the province is investing taxpayer dollars in both systems.

"Given the financial struggles that our public school have, I would prefer to see public funding only going to public schools that are democratically governed," said Bacchus. "Private schools [should] be privately funded."

Chisholm disagrees.

"They're all British Columbia families," said Chisholm, "and some of them have really struggled of late."

Submitted by Jennifer Heighton
Submitted by Jennifer Heighton

Speaking on CBC's The Early Edition Tuesday morning, Whiteside told host Stephen Quinn that the money for independent schools is required under B.C.'s School Act.

"We're acting according to what our governing legislation requires us to do," she said, noting that students who go to independent schools can also experience food insecurity.

"We're following the same provisions that we have always followed."

Families in need

At a Monday news conference, Carolyn Broady, president of the British Columbia School Trustees Association, said inflation and the rising cost of living are affecting families across the province.

"We have all noticed the increased costs at the grocery store, at the gas pump, and in our day-to-day lives," Brody said.

"The funds announced today will help boards of education ... assist families facing food insecurity and families who are unable to pay for school supplies."

"These funds will also help students facing financial barriers to participating in school activities such as graduating events, sports teams and music programs," she added.

B.C. says every school district will will be free to distribute the funds as they see fit, and use the money to either boost the budgets of existing programs or set up new initiatives to address areas of concern.

The government says each district will have to report on how the special fund was used at the end of the year, and whether or not it had the intended impact of making school activities more affordable for parents and students.