Province must bridge gap between affluent and needy schools

Posted on June 6, 2017 in Education Debates – Opinion/Editorials – A new study from the advocacy group People for Education finds that schools aren’t providing an equal education to rich and poor kids.
Mon., June 5, 2017.   Editorial

Ontario’s public education system is meant to provide an equal education for all children, regardless of their economic circumstances. But a new report from the advocacy group People for Education finds that in many ways that ideal is being undermined.

As Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, rightly concludes: the province is not doing nearly enough to get “public education to do what it’s supposed to do and overcome intergenerational cycles of poverty.”

That needs to be fixed. And the group’s annual report provides a valuable road map for working toward that goal.

One of the biggest barriers to equity, the group found, is fundraising. As the study points out, schools from richer neighbourhoods have a huge advantage with some able to raise up to $200,000 a year while others in poorer neighbourhoods couldn’t raise anything.

But it’s not the fundraising itself that’s the problem. It’s how the money is used. Guidelines prohibit the use of private funds to cover the costs of items that “replace public education.”

But what exactly that means remains highly ambiguous. Forty-eight per cent of elementary schools reported fundraising for learning resources such as computers, art supplies or other products or upgrades that clearly tilt the educational playing field.

That’s got to stop. A system set up to provide the same basic education for all students, regardless of their economic background, is allowing serious inequities to grow between schools in more and less affluent communities. The province must tighten the rules.

A second problem is the continued undermining of the Learning Opportunities Grant, a program meant to help vulnerable students whose families are struggling with poverty, violence or other socio-economic challenges.

The Education Ministry has consistently squandered the potential of this program. First, according to experts, the grant is underfunded. It was supposed to start off in 1997 at $400 million. Now, 20 years later, despite inflation and population growth, it still only stands at $353 million.

Second, in the past 20 years the portion spent on targeting needy students has dropped from 82 per cent of the entire grant to 47 per cent as other purposes, such as boosting test scores, took over.

With principals in disadvantaged neighbourhoods saying they have no money for breakfast or clothing programs, never mind computers and art supplies, the need the grant was created to address clearly remains great. Other programs should be funded out of other budgets.

As Kidder says, “There’s so much evidence to say if you provide targetted support — everything from smaller class sizes to guidance counsellors to breakfast programs — the kids that are less likely to do well, will do better.”

The school system should be a tool for redressing inequities, not compounding them. The People For Education report illuminates the scope of the problem and at least two potential fixes. Now it’s up to the self-proclaimed “social-justice premier” to act.

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