The trouble with customized public schools

Should taxpayers be forced to foot the bill for the political agenda of a small group of parents?


When public school enrollment in Toronto began tumbling a few years ago, board officials settled on a bold-sounding solution. Why not make the city a magnet for parents suspicious of one-size-fits-all education? Toronto had a healthy network of specialized arts and tech schools—along with a handful of “alternative” schools dating back to the 1970s aimed at kids needing extra help with their studies. By opening the doors to local groups who want to start new schools, the board reasoned, it could create the sort of choice parents often say lures them to put their kids in private schools.

But with freedom comes unforeseen questions. At what point is “alternative” just a byword for ideology? And why should taxpayers across an entire province foot the bill for the political agenda of one group of parents?

The problems are coming clear after Toronto’s board gave the go-ahead last month for an elementary school in the city’s west end dedicated to “environmentalism, social justice and community activism.” The Grove Community School’s mission speaks of supporting the diverse needs of children aged kindergarten to Grade 3 (if all goes as planned, the school will eventually go up to Grade 6). But its educational program is shot through with language that would not look out of place in the manifesto of an anti-globalist protest group. It is the first school in Canada to “fuse robust environmentalism with action-oriented equity education,” its website boasts, and when it launches next September, the school will foster an environment that challenges “competitive individualism” and “promotes ‘public good’ over any individual’s right to accumulate privilege and power.”

To Joyce Savoline, the education critic for Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives, the philosophical statement highlights the problems with opening the doors to everyone who wants to start a school. Though Grove will be required to follow the provincially mandated curriculum, she says, its proposal speaks more to the parents’ desire to reshape the world than anything to do with education. “What do you send your kids to school for?” she asks. “To learn to read and write and do arithmetic. Teach the kids basic skills that they are going to need to communicate and learn as they go through life. Don’t teach an idea at the age of five they’re going to have trouble letting go of when they’re 20.”

In Savoline’s judgment, such programs rightfully belong in the private system (as a point of fairness, the Tories had favoured extending public funding to all faith-based schools, on the grounds that Catholics received it, but later abandoned the policy). But more such controversies are bound to arise as publicly funded boards try to answer the growing demand for customized schooling. From the charter system in Alberta to B.C.’s independent schools, hybrids of the public and private models have in recent years been springing up across the country, with the taxpayers footing all or part of the tab. In B.C., independent schools receive 50-percent per student operating grants that the province provides to mainstream public schools; Alberta’s charter schools get full funding. At the same time, local boards like the one in Edmonton have swung open the door to full or partial mobility for students who wish to attend schools outside their catchment areas, which has led to further specialization within the public system.

Toronto, for its part, now has 37 alternative institutions, ranging from schools for gay and lesbian students to the controversial Afrocentric school planned for one of the city’s most troubled neighbourhoods. Each receives the standard $10,020 per year operating grant for each student, and some—including Grove—are housed in other schools’ buildings.

Sarah Blackstock, one of the parents instrumental in starting the Grove project, acknowledges its goals are more “explicit” than those of other alternative schools. But she denies her group’s program is overtly political. “I really believe this school is about developing critical thinking skills, because I think that’s the most fundamental skill we all need in terms of being responsible people in the world.”

Perhaps. But the starting point for that critical thinking will be a rather distinctive world view. The school’s vision draws on, among other theories, the academic work of Paolo Friere, a socialist academic from Brazil whose 1970 book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed set a path for leftist education scholars around the world. The result, as it appears in the school’s promotional literature, is a decidedly dark view of the mainstream public system. “Teaching based on radical individualism is not of real and long-term benefit to children who are members of interdependent communities,” warns the Grove website. Radical individualism is a label some intellectuals have affixed to the perceived decline of community life in the U.S. When asked whether public-school pedagogy is based on radical individualism, Manon Gardener, the superintendent responsible for the area where the Grove School will be located, deflected the question, saying only that the school’s program had undergone rigorous review.

How this will play out in the classroom is not yet clear. Lessons will be rooted in discussion, problem-solving and community projects, rather than traditional blackboard teaching methods. But the sound of political axes grinding will never be far off. When the children discuss the media, for instance, instructors will be required to “make visible how and why certain representations of race, class, gender etc., are constructed in the media, and to ask whose interests these representations serve.”

The irony in all of this is that the board is taking its cues in part from the private system—understanding, perhaps, that the attraction of alternative schooling lies as much in a sense of exclusivity as any philosophical underpinnings. Blackstock, for one, notes that many of the 60 pupils signed up for the Grove school will be coming from private schools.

That’s a development that fascinates Peter Cowley, the director of school performance measurement at the Fraser Institute. “I’ve seen public school systems bending over backward in Quebec and Edmonton and to a lesser extent in British Columbia to make themselves look like private schools,” says Cowley, whose organization has lobbied for greater choice in education. “What does that say?” To Cowley, the Grove school’s program differs only in degree from prevailing values within the public education mainstream. If the intent is to provide genuine choice, he says, provinces should switch to a fully privatized system in which parents are permitted to take their funding to whatever schools suit them best.

Which, of course, is about as likely to occur as the eradication of the schoolyard bully. For all the talk of drift toward private schooling, Canadians show no inclination to get rid of public schools (nearly six out of 10 in a poll taken last fall described their provinces’ systems as good or excellent). But as our tastes in education grow ever more particular, and as more parents demand schools that reflect their particular world view, public boards will be faced with a daunting challenge. They must still try to be all things to all people, while offering a little something extra to everyone who asks. Somehow, at some point, they will have to draw a line.


The trouble with customized public schools

  1. Which, of course, is about as likely to occur as the eradication of the schoolyard bully.
    B-b-b-b-b-but, surely you don’t mean to suggest that the Grove Community School will have a schoolyard bully, do you?
    That must have been a fun curriculum committee meeting…
    Reading: Don’t perpetuate the literate-advantaged oppression of the illiterate! Reading is for people who want to succeed! Down with individual success! It only widens social inequality!
    Writing: What? And consume paper? I don’t think so, buddy, we’re already killing enough vegetation with our vegetarian meal program as it is! Well, ok, maybe the tykes can perfect signing those Amnesty International cards to shame any first world government on our list. Especially the one paying for this fantastic educational option for parents to offer their children.
    Arithmetic: Another weapon in the arsenal of the rich capitalist! Well, ok, maybe we’ll learn how to count the red-paint-bombs we’re bringing on our social activism class field trip to the fur coat fashion show.

  2. I have no problem with customized public schools, but I have a problem with failing customized schools. Contrast say, Ursula Franklin in the TDSB with a school like Inglenook or The Student School (disclaimer: I went to none of those schools, but am familiar with all of them).

    UFA has consistently tanked in the top 50 schools in Ontario, according to the Fraser institute school performance report card. Almost everybody there passes the literacy test, etc. Indeed, it offers students within west end Toronto a much better alternative than ordinary public schools.

    The trouble is schools like Inglenook. It only has 4 days of class a week, is famous for pot-smoking teachers, and really fits that “hippie school” stereotype some have of alternative schools. Website featured below:

    The school, from what I can gather has a philosophy of enabling failure rather than encouraging success. Now, to some extent a school like that is catered towards reaching students that traditional approaches can’t reach (and there is a degree of adverse selection – overachievers aren’t likely to be attracted to Inglenook). A trade-off is always necessary, but I think the costs of coddling students outweigh the costs of being too tough or too traditional (students will generally be resistant to any form of education around age 17-18).

    So my bottom line is – we need traditional criteria for success. Are students passing the literacy test? Are students passing standardized math tests? Are students going on to university? Are students graduating in 4 years? And so on. We do need to control, I should add, for things like the student’s background and so on (indeed, maybe Inglenook is actually a good school, controlling for all those factors, in spite of my prejudices). If alternative schools can succeed on traditional metrics, then more power to them. If they do not, the they should be replaced, or restructured.

    Students learn in different ways, and I don’t think ordinary public schools can always accommodate all students. That said, it is problematic when alternative schools are set up to accomplish ideological, rather than educational objectives.

  3. Wow, and people think of the public system we have in Toronto is left wing as it is. We ain’t seen nothin’ yet I guess….

    Doesn’t the regular system for all it’s faults already do a pretty good job of informing students to think critically about the media? When I think back it seems like we took lots of social science classes/media classes/English classes for crying out loud that told us to question the world around us and not believe everything we see. And I feel the better for it. The parents founding this Grove school obviously feel that the system I remember still sucks up to The Man too much.

    • seems resisters don’t want “thinking” kids; but “unconscious”/”passive” kids/worker bees; and what’s the deal with labelling only the Afrocentric school as “controversial”?

      “make visible how and why certain representations of race, class, gender etc., are constructed in the media, and to ask whose interests these representations serve.”

      now *that’s* controversial! questioning everything! realizing *nothing* is as it seems; oh ohhh…looks like they’re taking the RED pill. (applause)

  4. …make visible how and why certain representations of race, class, gender etc., are constructed in the media, and to ask whose interests these representations serve.”

    No, that doesn’t sound like a Marxist critique of the “superstructure” at all.

    Actually, creating schools that are committed to instilling a revolutionary mindset in kids does sound rather controversial. Since you asked.

  5. The irony in all of this is that the board is taking its cues in part from the private system—understanding, perhaps, that the attraction of alternative schooling lies as much in a sense of exclusivity as any philosophical underpinnings>

    That is so true. The mechanism for Exclusivity of individual schools is mandated by the Provincial government. Parents have the power to set curriculum goals through participation in parent councils. They don’t know the first thing about what the study body as a whole needs and have no requirement to find out before they decide curriculum planning goals, yet the Provincial government has given parents the mandate to set the agenda in any given year. If one school focuses on environmentalism and athletics more than another, it is because that exclusive group of parents on Parent Council has made it so.

    The other piece that contributes to exclusivety of public schools is the fundraising contributions from Parents. These parents feel more invested, and participatory, and they get to decide how the money is spent. In doing so, they don’t conform to equity and inclusiveness policies of the board, or (in my view) to the rule of law. The fundraised money is not allocated equitably or wisely or democratically to serve needs and it is often raised in ways that exclude parents and children.

    The way to solve this education problem is to expose the role of parent boards in schools, the roles of parents who ‘contribute’ in the classroom to examine if their investedness in fact promotes more exclusivety to the point where they should not even be allowed to be around other people’s children.

    I don’t want meddling, ill informed parents at my child’s school doing anything. I don’t want invested, do-gooder richer parents foisting their world view on me through their participations. I want the government to foot the entire bill of education (including the daycare component). Daycare/childcare is another area where exclusivety in the public system has alot of play. Kids are segrated within public schools in large measure according to the style of before/after care.

  6. Some points about the Alberta school system:
    Charter schools account for a miniscule percentage of students, and some charter schools operate within school boards.
    Private schools in Alberta receive 60% of the per-pupil funding public (including charter) schools get.
    Private schools in Alberta are almost all faith-based, as opposed to elitist institutions for the children of the upper and aspiring classes, the notable exception being the Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School.
    Perhaps 5% of Alberta students attend private schools.
    Some (faith-based) private schools in Alberta have been absorbed into public school boards.
    The open-boundaries policy in some Alberta boards has led to competition among schools to find a market niche that may or may not have been counterproductive overall, but has certainly led to some creative thinking.

  7. http://www.tdsb.on.ca/profiles/2035.pdf
    If you look at this document, the School Focus for Grove Dixon MS, the Parent initiated plan to change the school curriculum is there in black and white for any parent to challenge.
    “developing a school vision together with staff, parents and students”
    I once challenged a stated curriculum goal set by parents at my son’s school in Toronto, another ‘Community’ school. The piece was a ‘school-wide’ play but I found that only a select number of parents and students were included for this event. The fallout, for me, for my child, and for the school principal, was substantial. The school principal was transferred in part because of complaints I made of my treatment to address this inequity in my son’s school. I left the school and my son left all his friends there behind but for one.
    The power that parents have to run schools is too much. Power should be returned to school administrators to save the system. Inequity — in the programming, in setting of curriculum — is destroying the system.

  8. ” “What do you send your kids to school for?” she asks. “To learn to read and write and do arithmetic. Teach the kids basic skills that they are going to need to communicate and learn as they go through life. Don’t teach an idea at the age of five they’re going to have trouble letting go of when they’re 20.” ”

    Really? That’s all kids learn in school? I have a child in junior kindergarten, and I can say that even at this young age that’s not all he’s learning. I’ve already had to have discussions with him about how it’s okay for a boy to cry, how toys are just toys and he can play with a doll just as much as he can play with a car, etc., etc. And unfortunately, from what I’ve seen of the teachers, this stereotypical attitude is reinforced by them as well. If, at 20, my kid feels the need to let go of ideas he learned at five, (ie, community activism, social justice and environmental sustainability), I’d much rather it be these ideas in his head rather than the stereotypical tough-boy/weak girl stuff I’ve witnessed him learning so far.

  9. Schools for our children are their second home. I think it is only right to have them study and learn things in an environment conducive for learning. Thanks for sharing this. This site might also help.

  10. Isn't it funny that we have yesterdays minds working on tomorrows issues.

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