Ontario must reform education—for the benefit of parents and students

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Appeared in the National Post, September 7, 2021
Ontario must reform education—for the benefit of parents and students

The kids are back in school (for now, anyway). And until recently, public education was dedicated to expansion. The goal was to ensure all students, no matter their location, gender or ethnicity, had access to professionally-staffed, well-equipped, fully accessible elementary and secondary schools. Three principles drove this expansion—universality, equality and responsible government. Each province honoured these principles when building its distinct education system, with most provinces in English-speaking Canada building on legislative foundations originally established in Ontario.

Societies change. Modern societies are very different from those of a 100, 50 even 25 years ago. Publicly financed and managed schools have made many indispensable contributions to the social and economic fabric of our modern, rich and diverse world.

But do they remain as capable in this modern world? A world which has come to contain overly large, financially insatiable bureaucracies that dominate the governance and delivery of education.

The bloated education establishment in Ontario today seems increasingly unable to retain public confidence. Not only does the system consume huge amounts of public money, spending continues to increase although enrolment has more or less flatlined. What’s more, the disappearance of what used to be a healthy balance between central and local control has allowed partisan political views to infiltrate the curriculum. Education policy often appears to be influenced more by fads, fashions and the demands of employee unions than responsible educational decision-making that respects the wishes of parents and the needs of children. Stagnant or falling test scores point to difficulties in teaching even the basics effectively.

We need new principles to augment and temper the established ones—we need school choice, school autonomy and transparent accountability.

School choice allows parents (and when old enough, students) to find and support the schools they want and trust. For many parents, this means choosing a school that embodies rather than challenges what they believe is important in life. For older students this means a school that offers a preferred mix of courses, challenges and opportunities. Open attendance policies in some Ontario school boards have made this kind of choice increasingly available to secondary students, but Ontario boards provide far fewer opportunities for choice at the elementary level. Crucially, Ontario’s long-standing unwillingness to follow other Canadian provinces that provide financial support for independent schools erects an often insurmountable barrier to school choice for non-wealthy households, discriminating against middle- and lower-income families.

School autonomy gives education professionals the freedom to create schools that better appeal to parent and student needs. Why shouldn't teachers with creative ideas be permitted to explore them in the classroom? Simultaneously, greater variety between schools stimulates school choice and encourages innovation in both government-run and independent schools. Outmoded principles inherited from the past have created the current uniform top-down curriculum. Ontario’s official curriculum, student testing and operational policies limit meaningful opportunities to tailor instruction. Staffing policies and corporate cultures within school boards further stifle innovation and limit school autonomy. In contrast, Ontario’s independent schools offer a rich variety of traditional and innovative schools. Providing financial support for all parents to help enable them to choose an independent school would encourage more variety, further enriching education in the province. School boards could themselves encourage greater innovation by adopting “open boundary” policies and encouraging public schools to be more responsive to parent requests and student needs.

Finally, education is too important for school performance to be largely judged by government officials and ambitious politicians. In the Internet age, why can’t parents more easily access test scores and school quality inspections? At the least, the public should know how much is spent on each individual school and how well each school is doing on comparable assessments of student learning. Results from Ontario’s current EQAO assessments must be more accessible, comprehensible and comparable. Ideally, narrow performance measures of this kind should also be supplemented with more holistic assessments—perhaps an independent inspection agency responsible for publishing reports on all Ontario schools, public and independent.

The modern principles of choice, school innovation and transparent accountability would improve education in Ontario. For too long the province’s educational establishment has largely ignored its growing independent school sector. The time has come to enrich the education system by bringing independent schools in from the cold. In addition to financial support to help non-wealthy parents to send their children to independent schools, we need more transparent accountability for both independent and government-run schools in the province.

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