Does the Provincial Budget put Public Education at Risk?

Public Education
Does the Provincial Budget put Public Education at Risk?
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About the Author

Chris Stoate

Chris Stoate

Chris Stoate holds degrees from Cambridge University and the University of Toronto. He founded and operated LaserNetworks, an international IT services firm in the print space with a significant environmental contribution. Chris has an interest in public education and served on the Halton Learning Foundation Board and the United Way Board, chairing the Oakville United Way campaign in 2012. He has also been an Oakville Town Councillor.

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In his remarkable book, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari proposes that the progress of humanity has been driven by a dynamic tension between freedom and equality.    Socialists value equality and are willing to sacrifice freedoms for it. Conservatives value freedom and will accept the inequality it leads to.

In the tug of war between the two, I have, as in most things in life, tried to eat my cake and have it too.  So, I believe in a society that strives for equality of opportunity but provides plenty of freedom for different outcomes.

In my view, such a society provides the maximum social cohesion consistent with encouraging initiative, ambition, creativity and hard work to everyone’s benefit.

Education is the single most important tool society can use to equalize opportunity. It gives people the tools that increase theirfreedom for opportunity.  How the government funds it has an enormous impact on the fabric of society.

Ontario has an enviable history in public education. It ranks with the best systems in the world. This achievement is in spite of a high percentage of new Canadians in the system and of students whose first language is neither English nor French.  While still strong by international standards, it has apparently deteriorated in mathematics in recent years.

The budget includes a number of measures to strengthen the system such as:

  1. Initiatives in indigenous education
  2. A move to more traditional mathematics teaching

These can only be evaluated over time.  For the sake of the children, teachers and parents need to support these initiatives and try to make them successful.

It also takes some steps to reduce costs, both immediately and in the future.  I am going to focus on only one of these, increasing class sizes. The budget proposes increasing class sizes beginning in Grade 4 in order to reduce the demand for new teachers in the future.

Education is the single most important tool society can use to equalize opportunity.

There is a lot of evidence that class size does not have an enormous impact on student learning.  It is rather the quality of the person in front of the class that is the biggest variable in student success.

Nevertheless, not many parents would choose to have their child in a larger class with less attention for each child from the teacher, however good he or she is.

In answer to this, the Minister of Education has said that it will make children more resilient, and if children are having trouble the parents can hire tutors.

Could there be a clearer statement that to this government, equality of opportunity is secondary to freedom, even in education?

If your child can’t cope immediately in a class of 28, (or more, how many does it take to make them resilient?) you are free to use money to fix the problem—just not everyone’s money, your money.

This means children’s futures become even more determined by parents’ means.  The children of single mothers, or of parents who work in not for profit, or of the working poor or the disabled, will be less likely to qualify for higher education.  With this simple single change, the playing field tilts just a little bit more.  It may not be consistent with Ontario values, but it’s the trend everywhere it seems.

Worse, more parents with means will not simply choose tutoring, but will move their children into private schools.  Even many who believe strongly in public education will not sacrifice their children’s futures on their principles.   One of the main selling points of private schools is smaller class sizes.

As a side note, funding for public education is per student, so more kids in private means lower costs to public education:  has this been factored in?

Already, many people who might haveread this article ignored it, because their children are in private schools. They have little interest in the quality of public education.  Often, these are the kinds of parents whose influence was most beneficial at school board meetings, in parent teacher conferences, and in influencing government on education spending and policy. They are lost to the public system.

Increasing class-size will add to  the number of these parents, as has the  uncertainty about neighbourhood school closings or teacher strikes.  The more high-achiever parents who stop caring about the public system, the harder it is to get public support to strengthen it, and the more it will deteriorate.

Margaret Thatcher famously said that state schools were not important because her voters’ children were not in them.

If it gives rise to labour unrest even more parents will move their children into the private system. Even parents who care about social cohesion and a level playing field, and believe public education is a keystone of the system, care more about their own children. Those who can will make the sacrifices to move to private education if they believe they have to.

I hope the Unions will decide to address this at the ballot box rather than at the expense of children and will use their strike funds to educate the public on why this matters.

It does not take long to get to a two-tier education system that is intergenerational, where the social class you are born into has a greater and greater bearing on whether you will have a happy and productive life.

Public education is hard to do well—among English speaking countries, Canada is almost alone in its performance; once, America was the best in the world: now it ranks 48th.

Increasing class sizes may seem a small change, but everything, however minor, has knock on effects.  Coffin nails are small, but enough of them and the coffin is closed forever.

If we needed to reduce the spending on education, were there not other avenues?

Other cost saving options:

The duplication of administration in our four publicly funded systems, English and French Public and English and French Catholic, is surely an area where overheads could be reduced to liberate funds for the classroom.

After all, if one wants a religious education, we offer the freedom of private schools. Surely it is time to get rid of the anachronism of one religion having publicly-funded schools in our very multicultural society?

The equal opportunity to achieve inequality is rare in the world. Canada provides it better than most other countries.  It is always hard to build things and easier to destroy them, even unintentionally, particularly if we take them for granted.

If you care about public education as I do, make sure your MPP knows it, and make it a factor in your choice at the next election.

Read more articles by Chris Stoate on OakvilleNews.Org or follow him on Twitter @ChrisStoate

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