Toronto admissions fiasco underscores need for school choice
Leave it to the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) to turn a bad decision into a total disaster.
Last year, TDSB trustees voted 17-3 to revamp its specialized school admissions process. Specialized schools focus on subjects such as arts, science, math, technology and athletics. Because these schools are in high demand among parents, there are always far more applicants than spaces available.
Instead of using traditional methods such as interviews, exams and portfolios to assess applicants, students who apply for these limited spots are now selected by a lottery system. The ostensible reason for this change was to increase the number of marginalized students accepted into these schools. To ensure this happened, the TDSB set aside 25 per cent of the spaces in these schools for students from under-represented groups such as black and Middle Eastern children, and those who identify as LGBTQ.
Unfortunately, due to a major computer error, students from these under-represented groups were only considered for 25 per cent of the spaces and not for the remaining 75 per cent of available spaces. In other words, instead of making it easier for marginalized students to attend these schools, the TDSB ended up excluding them. So much for promoting equity.
TDSB administrators and trustees should be ashamed. Not only did they dismantle an admissions process that, by all accounts, was working well, but they replaced it with one that hurt the very students they were trying to help. The TDSB cannot avoid accountability by blaming everything on a computer error. As we all know, computer programs are only as good as the information we feed into them. Had the TDSB not been so obsessed with categorizing students by race, gender identity and sexual orientation, this error would never have occurred in the first place.
These specialty schools exist to provide training in unique skill areas. An arts school that doesn’t assess artistic skills or a sports school that doesn’t admit students based on athletic ability will inevitably see a decline in the quality of its programming. In the end, students who wish to advance to an elite level in these fields will have no choice but to enrol in independent schools, if they even exist in the province, that haven’t watered down their admissions requirements.
However, the debate over admissions policy risks overshadowing an even more important issue. The fact that the number of applicants to these specialty schools is considerably higher than the number of available spaces is a clear sign that Toronto parents want more school choice. Instead of fiddling around with racial admissions quotas, the TDSB should look at how it can make choice a key focus of its education system.
There is precedent for moving in this direction. Nearly 40 years ago, the Edmonton Public School Board made a conscious decision to focus on school choice. While students in Edmonton still have the option of attending their local neighbourhood school, they can also enroll in arts schools, athletic schools, faith-based schools and language immersion schools—all within the public system.
In fact, Toronto’s initial foray into specialty schools was largely modelled on what was already happening in Edmonton. Back in 2010, then-education director Chris Spence proposed a package of four elementary schools known as “Elementary Programs of Choice.” This included an all-boys school, an all-girls school, a sports academy and a choir school.
While TDSB went ahead with some specialty schools, it did not go nearly as far in this direction as Edmonton did. It didn’t help when Spence was forced out of his position in 2013 due to serious allegations of academic plagiarism—allegations that were later substantiated. Sadly, subsequent TDSB education directors were considerably less enthusiastic about school choice than Spence was.
In the end, TDSB continues to be a one-size-fits-all district where school choice is treated as little more than an interesting novelty. Instead of strengthening the options available to parents, TDSB appears content to force everyone into the same mold. Its latest admissions fiasco is yet another sign that TDSB is more interested in enforcing ideological conformity than in encouraging genuine educational diversity.
Basing admissions to specialty schools on quotas rather than merit is a mistake. Admission should always be based on merit.