The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is introducing thousands of dollars in fees for students enrolling in specialized International Baccalaureate (IB) programs.
The IB program is an enriched academic stream that "aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect," according to its mission statement.
It's usually offered at private schools or for a fee by public school boards — but for years, the TDSB has been offering the programs for free at six Toronto schools.
The TDSB said last year alone, it paid around $850,000 to have this program for 600 students. That's about to change. The school board now says starting in the 2020-21 school year, there will be a $3,000 fee for the program: $1,500 for Grade 11 and $1,500 for Grade 12.
Maria Saras-Voutsinas, who has a daughter in Grade 12 taking the IB program at Monarch Park Collegiate, told CBC News that the newly-announced costs have been "eye-opening" and "concerning" for parents.
"It will definitely pose a barrier," she said. "This is definitely an equity issue."
In a note to parents at Parkdale Collegiate Institute, which offers one of the IB programs, principal Julie Ardell said there are costs linked to the program related to teacher training, annual dues, IB exams and more.
"In the past, these costs were covered by the TDSB," she wrote. "Given the board's current budget realities and limited resources, the TDSB can no longer cover the costs related to the IB program."
Students who are currently enrolled in Grade 11 IB programs will have to pay $1,500 by June of 2020 to continue with the program, Ardell added.
"Please note that these fees are in line with what other GTA boards require for the IB program," she wrote.
'Tightening of the purse strings'
TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird told CBC News that the board is facing a $67-million shortfall this year, brought on by a combination of provincial cuts and a structural deficit.
"When we're looking at a program that every other board in the GTA charges for, and we're the only ones that aren't, when we're facing a budget shortfall there are difficult decisions that have to be made," Bird said.
"We could not continue to pay that."
Saras-Voutsinas said she understands that Toronto likely couldn't continue to be the sole public board in the region covering these costs. Both the Peel District School Board and York Region District School Board confirmed that they have diploma IB programs with costs in a similar range to what's being introduced in Toronto.
"The tightening of the purse strings is definitely a reality," Saras-Voutsinas said. But the cost will no doubt deter people from enrolling in a program that her daughter loves, she said.
"It has been exceptional … It's made her a more well-rounded person," she said. "She's got this global perspective."
Sujith Ramkumar, a Grade 12 student who is enrolled in the IB program at Parkdale Collegiate Institute, echoed that statement.
"It's really preparing me for the future … Taking IB was definitely a good choice for me," he said.
In a news release, a group of parents, students, teachers and members of the community called Say No to IB Fees laid the blame for the introduction of fees on the province and changes to education funding.
The Ministry of Education said in a statement that the province is "committed to ensuring all children in the province have access to a world-class education system," and noted that the IB program is voluntary.
"The decision to offer the IB program in a school or school board, and any associated costs involved, is one that is made exclusively at the local level," the statement reads. "The IB program is not mandated by the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry does not fund the IB program directly."
The Say No to IB Fees group says TDSB census data shows household incomes for families with students at Parkdale CI are lower than the rest of the TDSB, and also that 36 per cent of the school's population is enrolled in the IB program.
Ramkumar said he knows of many students in the area who won't be able to afford $3,000 to enrol in the program.
"Having this fee is hindering students ...This creates an adverse effect, like, 'Here's the rich IB students versus the rest of the students,'" he said.
"A public school environment should just not have this."
Financial assistance available
TDSB Chair Robin Pilkey said it's not the board's intention to create barriers for students who want to access the program.
Speaking on CBC Radio's Metro Morning Tuesday, she said most of the students in the program are not from a socio-economic background that would see them struggling to afford the new fees. However, she said, those who may have a challenge paying the fees may qualify for help.
"We have already indicated right from the beginning there will be a bursary or financial assistance for students who felt that this was a barrier for their access," Pilkey said.
"We have not stepped back from that and we continue to tell people that ... We feel that there is a group of people [for whom] this will become difficult and we believe it is important that we continue to ensure those kids can attend."