Friday, August 24, 2007

Building community and saving $ with one school system

In my last post, I put the Green Party of Ontario’s proposal to move to a single public school system in its political and historical perspective. Today I’ll take a look the advantages of such a system, beginning with simple efficiency and demographics. On Monday I’ll discuss the more complex social dimensions.

When responsibility for education was designated to the provinces way back in the 19th century, formal schooling played a minimal role in Ontario’s overall economy. Formal education in Europe had been largely the initiative of churches, and even in North America schooling was for the elite.

Today, education is a major public business with a $17 billion budget, and the stress is on accessibility for all.

Over the past hundred years, public education, for all its faults, has been an incredible success story. Ontario is one of the best educated societies in history, and the result has been a reduction in class inequity, a luxurious standard of living for most citizens, a rapidly increasing tolerance for social difference, and high expectations for human and civil rights.

Certainly, elitism and cultural intolerance still exist, and our standard of living comes at a horrendous cost of overconsumption of natural resources and environmental toxicity. And our education system isn’t the only factor in driving social progress. Our public education system has plenty of room to improve in many areas, but it would be folly to overlook its potential to play a major role in continued social and economic progress.

Even as the importance of education and the minimum of formal education required to succeed in our high-tech economy are growing, however, the proportion of young people in Ontario is dropping as our population ages.

Ontario’s annual education budget supports a network of English and French Public and Separate School Boards across the province. Many schools and school boards are finding it difficult to maintain financial efficiency with under-used facilities as enrolment falls.

The PC government under Mike Harris tried to address this issue by amalgamating school boards the same way it amalgmated municipalities. Today’s Kawartha-Pine Ridge District Board of Education is a product of those policies - and also a demonstration of the administrative inefficiency brought about by making an administrative structure responsible for too large a geographical area. It’s a two-hour drive from Apsley to Bowmanville, and there’s not much the two areas have in common – but both are now part of the same school board.

What the Harris government didn’t have the guts to do, but which would have made much more sense, was to amalgamate the Public and Separate boards. In Peterborough’s case, for example, it surely makes more sense to have all the local schools under one umbrella, rather than requiring teachers and administrators from both boards to drive all over central Ontario to get to or to do their jobs.

Moreover, the Ministry of Education’s funding formulas compensate boards with lower population densities for providing special services such as ESL instruction, resulting in skewed funding scenarios in which Public and Separate boards in the same area may receive radically different amounts of money for the same services. The costs of duplication in operating school buses have already become prohibitive, and the two systems now operate their transportion jointly in most of Ontario.

The PC proposal, to extend public funding to all religiously-based schools which meet the province’s standards, is estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Its detractors argue that this is money taken out of the public system as it currently stands, subsidizing the few at the expense of the many.

If this is the price tag for extension of funding to religious groups making up a much smaller proportion of Ontario’s population than do Catholics, imagine how much more funding could be freed up in administrative savings to hire more teachers, save small schools, and start new programs – all while integrating students with one another in their local communities.

On Monday I'll comment on the other benefits one public education system would bring to Ontario.

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