Notion of choice in public schools growing

While the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has been getting a lot of publicity lately about alternative schools, it seems that, not only is the concept growing all across Canada, it has hit the mainstream media. For example, a hat tip to regular reader, West Coast Teddi, who provided this link to a National Post article dated yesterday by Tom Blackwell — with the title “Specialized public schools catch on in Canada.”

As noted in the title of Blackwell’s column, sometimes they are referred to as specialized or specialty schools. Other times they may be referred to as alternative schools or, in some provinces, independent or charter schools.

Whatever their name, they are based on student and community need. As such, there are sport schools, like the “basketball school” in Hamilton, Ontario mentioned in the above link, as well as French immersion, liberal arts schools that are all-boys or all-girls, fine arts schools, schools designated for First Nations and black youth of African descent, music and choir, and so on. Key, of course, is that they are all publicly funded with taxpayers money.

Why is this happening now? Well, in my opinion, it is the intersection of needs and reality. On the one hand, there is student and community need and a demand for school choice. On the other, there is the fact that most public school boards in Canada are experiencing declining  enrollments. Meaning, that boards are having to think competitively to both retain and recruit students — and one way to do that is to provide the choice students and parents seem to want.

In other words, if done cautiously and based on demand, alternative schools can be a win/win for everyone!

16 thoughts on “Notion of choice in public schools growing

  1. I am happy to support totally public school choice in principal. Some of the secondary alternative schools in the TDSB and the TBE before that were set up specifically to get street kids back in school. I find the “Carriage Trade” schools to be a bit precious and elitist in orientation. I oppose the artificial separation of races, genders and religions in schools. I was a trustee when we sent a group that wanted separate Islamic boys and girls schools packing, and I was happy to oppose this misogynist concept. I consider separate boys and girls schools, Afo centred schools and the like retrograde.

    One of the main points of public education is to create a hidden curriculum of mini-societies where we all learn to get along by race gender religion class creed whatever. This is the total opposite of the view say of ML King Jr or Ghandi.


  2. Doug — I certainly agree with your point re the danger of institutionalizing misogny (as in Muslim requirements where boys and girls are separated for supposed religious reasons). But, I graduated from a Catholic all-girls high school in Ottawa and it was a really great experience for me — by allowing me to blossom without worrying about competing with boys. However, Immaculata (which has been co-ed since the late 1970’s) did a lot with St. Pat’s which was all-boys. So, we didn’t lack in the mini society sense.

    However, your position is strongly Toronto oriented because the smaller cities and towns in Ontario are not little United Nations as larger urban centres are. So, our issues are somewhat different than yours.

    Mind you, alternative schools are not so important in smaller urban and rural centres either. But, St. Catharines has Eden High School — where I taught in the mid 1980’s when it was still private.

    Re MLK Jr. or Ghandi — and your point is? What do they have to do with this discussion. One was seeking equality for blacks in the U.S. The other a pacifist in India. When you equate those men to the discussion on choice, you are showing yourself to be an ideologue, as opposed to the pragmatist I thought you were.


  3. Sandy, I would be very careful in comparing charter schools or independent schools to the alternative schools in Toronto. Some of your readers may consider them the same thing – which they are not. Alternative schools are still run and managed by school boards.


  4. Social conservatives will love the idea of parental choice. Fiscal conservatives will denounce these schools as being a waste of taxpayers’ money. These schools exist in locations that should have been closed due to declining enrollment. The number of children in these alternative schools also usually don’t match the number of students needed to consider the building at capacity. These alternative schools could also encourage children from small towns and rural communities to move to larger urban centres for their education. Who would that hurt?

    This is one issue that could test the unity of the PC Party in the next election if parental choice and alternative schools are part of the PC platform.


  5. I find it interesting that the response from the TDSB to declining enrollments is to launch a campaign to recruit new students. I suspect this is a sign of an organization that built itself up to a certain level and now refuses to adjust itself to reflect the reduced size of the “customer base” it is intended to accomodate. Why shouldn’t the onus be on the TDSB to provide a level of service, and require the appropriate amount of funding, to meet the needs of the people who are using the service; instead we appear to have a scenario where maintaing the status quo is paramount…


  6. The ML King/Ghandi POV is that both believed, as much as possible in integration. I believe the impulse to segregate by race gender (including catholic single gender schools) religion, creed, class etc is essentially a reactionary impulse. I believe in the maximizing of integration.

    I can’t blame the TDSB for fighting declining enrolement but the real fault is at the provincial level where they will not provide the proper funding. They always invite the trustee to these ARC meetings. I have been demanding that they invite the MPP and put them on the hot seat, “if the school closes you won’t be re-elected”. As I said, support for public alternatives in general does not imply support for specific stupid ideas.

    Check my latest story on the consultation skills of Chris Spence

    Matt is right, Sandy, public alternative schools are still socialist institutions employing only government certified unionized teachers. We would not want to trick anyone here.


  7. Pretty hard to see why an MPP would want to attend a meeting where he/she would be bullied by people making a lot of dubious threats. I suspect the MPP could toss it back and point out that elected trustees determine how the budget is allocated.

    On the issue of funding Dalton has been dumping money into education, at a time when student numbers are plunging. I suspect even he’s getting a little tired of the “underfunding” line from people who’ll never be satisfied.


  8. It is the MPP that determines the level of funding, or in this case serious underfunding. In Toronto my friends and I have done everything we can to make sure that the MPPs are held responsible for school closings. There should be an empty chair at every ARC meeting for the local MPP who refused to come and face the music. There is no need for them. Dalton has been very tight fisted with education, he has never really restored the money slashed by the Harris/Eves disaster on an inflation adjusted basis. Now it looks like we are not even going to get the long delayed funding formula review so we will be stuck with the 1995-2003 disaster even longer.


  9. Matt & Doug — Sorry but I don’t buy the notion of tricking anyone. Independent schools in BC and Charter Schools in Alberta are publicly funded and each have their own board. In other words, public money is used and there is an accountability structure. It doesn’t have to be Ontario-like boards of education. In N.B. there are district units.

    Moreover, you don’t actually need unionized teachers as long as they are certified as in qualified teachers with teacher qualifications. At the moment in Ontario, alternative schools do have unionized teachers, but don’t confuse the two. A teacher can be qualified and not necessarily have to be a union member — as would be the case in a private school. I get really fed up with the government certified unionized nonsense, particularly when it comes to emergency workers, etc. Private can be just as certified. Unionized does not make them better.

    Doug — We do not need to spend MORE money on education. Give me and taxpayers a break. Try doing more and better for less for a change.


  10. But Sandy, the alternative schools in Toronto are not independent schools or charter schools. Perhaps in the future they might be, but right now they are not. It sounds like parental choice can only be achieved, in your opinion, through independent schools or charter schools.

    Sandy, what role has unions played in your life over the years.


  11. Even you conservative types need to realize that we are in a rapidly shrinking world and our most serious competition is pouring every nickel they have into education. We cannot continue making our living on resource extraction.

    There is only one way to make our country a high standard of living, high value added, modern, egaliterian nation and that is to put every spare nickel we can find into education. We need to have, the smallest classes in the world, the best trained teachers in the world, the most expansive and comprihensive system in the world and the best paid system in the world to attract the very best people in the world. Its simple really. What could be easier than that.


  12. What could be easier than that? Doug. Nothing. So, why don’t we have that kind of system already? When Harris came to power, I remember the budget for education was $14 billion. It was up to $17 billion when McGuinty took over meaning Harris did not actually cut anything, he just changed the formula to give the Catholic system an equal amount. The Ontario education budget is now well over $20 billion. So, why do we not yet have the kind of system you think it should be? Just how much do you think would be enough?

    By the way, are you and Matt ganging up on me or is it just a coincidence?


  13. We need one of the political parties to champion increasing front line workers in the public sector, and decreasing management, consultants, and coordinators. Teachers are professionals. Nurses and other registered allied health providers are professionals. We are all more effective when we are empowered to use all our skills and knowledge, but the more people there are to answer to the harder it is to stay motivated to do what you know is best. And those management types are expensive and don’t contribute to the improvement of services. The health unit that I work for has had the same number of total staff for 13 years, but the management team has increased by 33% (8 individual positions), and I’m sure the admin. support team has also increased. I believe that the huge cost increase for education and health results from this ’empire building’ management and ministry behaviour, and we need to refocus on the classroom and the bedside.


  14. You have some good points Paula re putting money to better use. However, I disagree about teachers being professionals. They ceased to be when they went from federations into regular unions and school stewards rather than federation “reps.” Then, with the help of former Liberal Education Minister Gerard Kennedy, they changed the numbers on the College of Teachers board of governors to ensure a majority of the governors were teachers’ union members (and remember it was supposed to be about serving the public interest not the teachers) with union approved candidates. And, before Doug disagrees, I know because my husband ran as a OCT candidate but just before that election, and the many that have followed, the unions sent out a list of who they “recommended.” Funny that all those folks got elected. Like sheep to the slaughter, teachers are no longer leaders. I suspect nurses are much better at being professional, even with a union.


  15. BC and Ontario College of Teachers – Similar Problems

    Right now, in BC, we are going through the most agonizing and convoluted discussions concerning the move of our college trying to gain independence from the union (BC Teachers’ Federation). The same problems beset us as Ontario with the unions funding election campaigns of members, etc., etc. Public interest is the major issue. This is what I just blogged to our Vancouver Sun:

    BCCT vs BCTF – ISSUE # 1 – Power vs Authority

    1. Power. If this BCCT vs BCTF dispute is a clash of Titans, there is definitely history here. As far as raw, physical, continuous force goes, one just has to read this history article to see how the BCTF has grown as a parallel force to the government since 1972 in BC. That is, steady, systematic, incremental growth for nearly 40 years. Please see “teacher power” in this article: The Decline and Fall of the BC Ministry of Education

    2. Authority. Who has the authority in matters educational is not often questioned. Not much. Only some home educators would disagree as some claim it is a higher authority than man that governs their duty to educate their children. Nevertheless, most people would agree that it is the elected government that has the ultimate authority. That this authority has been emasculated and frustrated by the awesome extensive power of the teacher union is the subject of the history article referred to above and also a topic of conversation regarding the recent issues with the BCCT and the BCTF.

    To put things into an international perspective the BCTF is not alone in its extraordinary influence and power in education. Teacher unions internationally have gained power incrementally over sleepy jurisdictions. There definitely has been witness and oversight failure. By school boards, by senior governments and by domesticated parents and unaware public.

    In a recent TV debate in the US we heard the former Education Secretary, Rod Paige, say: “teachers unions represent the most dominant political force in American education. We’re not talking about little wimpy organizations. We’re talking about mammoth highly financed, highly organized, highly peopled organizations. And political dominance is not something they got unintentionally. They intended to be politically dominant.”

    Questions arising:

    a) Does might make right?
    b) Is this a case of an Irresistible Force against an Immovable Object?
    c) What are the political rewards or payoffs that the present government is enjoying by not intervening in this standoff of 22 years standing?
    d) _________________


  16. Tunya Audain — Thanks for stopping by. Here is a link to your site should anyone want to check it out.

    No doubt you will hear an opinion from Doug Little, who is a former teacher and secondary union official — and still does consulting work. In fact, the last I heard he was meeting with colleagues in B.C. Here is a link to his site.

    I’m somewhere in the middle between the two of you. The main thing is “the train has probably already left the station.” It can only be slowed down a bit, but certainly not stopped. I’m not one to advocate for no teachers’ unions though. However, I don’t see why they have anything whatsoever to do with professional development, but they have as long as I can remember.


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