Inequality exists in Ontario’s publicly-funded school system: advocacy group

Posted on May 27, 2013 in Equality Debates – Business
May 27, 2013.   By Neco Cockburn, Ottawa

Inequality in the province’s public education system means that some students from poorer families face challenges accessing programs and activities such as the arts, sports and field trips, says a report from a public advocacy group.

Although Ontario students are doing well overall, gaps in the system mean that not all students have an opportunity for a “broadly-based, enriched education,” said Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education.

In one example, students in schools with high average family incomes have a greater chance of participating in a band or choir, the group finds in its annual report. Those students are also more likely to have access to gifted and French Immersion programs, and to take academic courses needed in order to have a wide range of choices after graduation, says the report, which is being released Monday.

Kidder said also that there has been an increasing assumption that parents will raise funds to augment the system or pay fees to cover things such as trips or extracurricular activities.

That reliance increases the gap between “have” and “have-not” schools, the report says, noting that top fundraising schools were found to also have the highest average family incomes, and to raise much more than others.

Schools tend to charge more fees in areas where incomes are higher, and that leads to the possibility of more choice being offered to their students for activities such as arts and sports enrichment, according to the report.

And this year, for the first time, some principals responding to a survey said that students can pay a fee to go to instrumental music classes during the day, while those who don’t pay attend regular music class.

Most schools provide some sort of subsidy to ensure that all children can participate — and some even have formal “right-to-participate” policies — but practices vary, the report states. Some principals reported that students “opt out” of an activity or participate in an “alternative” one.

Schools can change children’s lives when they don’t simply replicate the gap between rich and poor, said Kidder. With 95 per cent of the province’s students attending the publicly-funded system, “it should be providing every child, whether their parents can afford it or not, a fairly equitable education,” she said.

“The concern is that this is a nut that we don’t seem to have been able to crack. We’re probably not paying enough attention to the fact that the system is working very, very well for many of the students, but there are groups of students who continue to be left out.”

The idea of providing equal opportunities in all parts of the system can be overshadowed by a push for achievements such as increasing test scores in reading, writing and math, boosting graduation rates and closing the “achievement gap” on test scores, the report suggests.

“We have a tendency to not then try to ensure that every student has access to arts education, or a chance to be in a choir, or even in a gifted program,” said Kidder. Students do need to learn how to read, write and do math, but there’s evidence that creative expression, health, and participation within a school provide a broad base of skills that last a lifetime, she said.

All aspects of education should be looked at through an “equality lens,” Kidder said. Policies should set out the things deemed important that all students should have access to, “and then you figure out the funding, rather than the other way around.”

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