Education Action: Toronto

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May 2014

Dear Friends,

It’s hard to know how to respond to the current Ontario election’s disappearing act when it comes to education policy. Education issues are hardly visible anywhere.

Nigel Barriffe (who is running, with our support, as an ONDP candidate in Etobicoke North) is trying, however, to keep these issues alive in his part of the part of the world (www.nigelbarriffe.com). Attached are two pieces from Nigel: In the first, he introduces Doug Little’s list of “moderate progressive” reforms that have a realistic chance of implementation. In the second he responds to Kathleen Wynne’s austerity agenda in education and Tim Hudak’s plan to cut 100,000 public sector jobs, with the biggest bite coming from education. Both pieces are worth reading.

Ontario’s elementary teachers have made a helpful contribution to a province-wide discussion of our school system by producing a full-scale election program for school reform entitled Building Better Schools. ETFO has also produced a short guide to Bill 122, also attached, which should help readers come to grips with the new framework for bargaining among school boards, their employees and the education ministry.

An issue that really ought to be on the table in this election is the destructive impact of EQAO’s standardized testing. The elementary teachers’ union – with solid membership support – and the NDP are beginning to move away from this testing. Both, unfortunately, are still willing to accept random testing as a sop to hardline neo-liberals, even though most teachers and the NDP recognize that random testing is just as mindless as full-scale standardized testing (though not as draconian) and still points teachers in the wrong direction. In this issue, we’re including Ontario secondary teacher Gord Bambridge’s recent analysis of the impact of EQAO’s international partner in standardized testing, PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment). This program strengthens business influence in our schools, undermines local democracy, presses false standards on both teachers and students, and effectively “deskills” both and guts their programs.

Issues of provincial childcare should also be central to this campaign. Martha Friendly here outlines “the dismal state” of child care programs both Canada-wide and here in Ontario. She also points to the failure of the provincial government to implement its program of “full-day early learning.” This has turned into “full-day kindergarten,” still inadequately funded, while child care has been “moved to the back burner.” Friendly calls on all parties in this election to develop “a robust, long-term, evidence-based ECEC policy framework with principles, goals and targets, timetables and sustained financial commitments” and to include child-friendly staff ratios and decent pay for childcare workers.

Another fundamental issue is that of youth unemployment, which is both a federal and a provincial responsibility. On this subject we’re attaching Armine Yalnizyan’s analysis of what the federal government could do, “if it really wanted to reduce youth unemployment.” The next Ontario government would do well take Yalnizyan’s recommendations to heart. Readers should also look over Trish Hennessy’s figures on “the skills gap trope,” especially as they affect younger workers. We now know the federal Tories have been fudging Canada’s “skills gap” figures to promote a low-wage temporary workers’ program, and Hennessy’s figures reveal the complexity of the issue of work skills, particularly the pressures on corporations to deskill their workforce, and the urgency with which we must tackle it, not only in our workplaces but also in our schools.

In dealing with how schools try to produce a corporate workforce – “human capital” as the Education Ministry likes to describe it – we need to recognize that the corporations themselves are not planning any kid-friendly initiatives on this front. On this subject, we offer Erika Shaker’s tongue-in-check reflections on the suggestion that CEOs improve pedagogy and student engagement as part of their general social outreach. We also present Donald Gutstein’s examination of Galen Weston’s adventures in educational do-gooding. We learn how Weston and his family are massively funding the Fraser Institute’s programs to destabilize the public education system and promote school choice and vouchers. Not a happy story.

In these election moments, it’s good to see the emergence of the Campaign for Commercial Free Schools, whose recent update you can find below. It would be valuable, we think, for the CCFS to ask the candidates in this election where they stand on fundraising, naming rights, and advertising policies as they apply to school spaces. So far, there is no mention of the issue from any of the parties.

As a regular part of this Clearing House, we take you south of the border, where so many destructive initiatives in education take place and then migrate northwards, if they aren’t already flourishing here. Matt Bruenig provides a dramatic set of graphs showing the impact of America’s social class structure on its children and their education. Gord Bambrick reviews Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Noam Chomsky writes on the corporatization of the university, with its increasing reliance on cheap labour, large classes, expensive layers of bureaucracy and management, and growing tuition fees. He calls instead for “shared governance,” worker control, and honest discovery in academic work that’s loved by both teachers and students. Finally, from Seattle, Diane Brooks brings us some good news – a teachers’ boycott of standardized testing that sparked a nation-wide movement.

Don’t forget: Back issues of Education Action: Toronto Online Clearing House can be found on our website: educationactiontoronto.com. And, if you know anyone or any group who might be interested in receiving articles from us, please send us along their emails.

In solidarity,

George Martell, David Clandfield, Faduma Mohamed

Education Action: Toronto

Queen’s Park Keeps Turning The Screws On Local Trustees

by Dudley Paul

Once upon a time in Ontario, it was not so hard for people to be involved in local politics.

It is beyond the memory of most of us, but civic-minded people could take part in any one of 4000 school boards. Some boards were in charge of only one local school with perhaps a handful of 40 or 50 students, but that school was the centre of its community. Elected trustees were charged under the Education Act with significant responsibilities: ensuring that there was a teacher in place and that the building and grounds were kept up. In some larger boards, trustees would decide who might be exempted from paying school rates, if they were beyond their means. They provided for dental inspections, even surgeries for children who needed them so they could go to school. To be a member of the local school board was a serious business. Trustees who were elected and refused to serve were fined five dollars. Trustees who neglected their duties were fined twenty.

It all seems so quaint today. Over the past 50 years, there has been periodic but steady movement towards amalgamation of smaller boards. Now, Mega-boards like the TDSB oversee education for more than 200,000 students. These big boards are said to be too big and complex to be run by anyone but professionals, and even these people need close supervision by even more capable professionals from the Ministry of Education lest they think for themselves and act independently. Trustees are now so distant from the operation of any one school they might as well be living in another town.

In this age of corporate power, compliant governments at all levels look to rationalize and exclude citizens even more from the process of governing. Civic-minded people are welcome to run sports teams, pack bags in the burgeoning system of food banks and replace paid workers in a diminishing social services network. However, they have no place scrutinizing the activities of governments or their friends in the corporate sector. They don’t know enough, and they get in the way. They can stay out of it, thanks very much.

We have a Prime Minister who closes Parliament down when questions become too pointed, who rails against an un-elected Senate, then stuffs it with his supporters, who uses it to kill an environment bill passed by an elected House of Commons, who engages our military for at least three more years in Afghanistan without bothering to bring it up with elected MPs, who has little time even for Cabinet Ministers, preferring to run the country directly from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Toronto Mayor, Rob Ford was elected with a promise that he would cut the city council in half – again – this time from 44 down to 22.

Where is there room for civic-minded people? How can they ever become involved at any level of government that drifts further from public interest and scrutiny?

Facing Up To Bill 177

While the disregard for elected people is plain, after shelling out thousands of dollars to run a campaign, it must still come as a bit of a surprise to newly elected school board trustees to realize how little influence they have on the school board to which they have been elected. This is especially noteworthy for the current round of trustees, who face the effects of Bill 177, The Student Achievement and School Board Governance Act, that was folded into the Education Act last year.

A newly elected trustee who, for reasons that will become clear, prefers not to be identified, put in a recent email how he was shocked to discover that under Section 18 of the amended Education Act, trustees must “…uphold the implementation of any board policy or resolution after it has been passed by the board”. EA:TO previously warned of how broadly “upholding” might be interpreted. Former trustee Josh Matlow found this out when the legislation was barely out of the egg earlier this year, after he criticized the Toronto District School Board for spending $345,000 on a one-off PD session with director Chris Spence. The Board had already passed the resolution to spend the money. Matlow faced board censure according to the new rules when he did his job by taking the board to task for wasting dollars at the same time as it was deciding what schools to close to save money.

Trustees need no longer suffer the illusion that they can vigorously represent their constituents’ interest. They may be elected but have to remember that it’s the Ministry of Education that calls the shots. Suppose you’re a trustee who takes the job seriously. You plan to watch how the board spends public money and carefully consider its policies in light of the needs of your community. Maybe you see local schools as a pivotal part of neighborhoods and have promised constituents to preserve them. Has a school board decided to close a school in your community? Are you unhappy with the decision and want to rally community members to oppose the closure? Stop and remember your place. If you don’t behave according to the supremely vague admonition to “uphold” the board’s decision, the director education must report your misconduct to the board and the Ministry. You could face censure by your fellow trustees, a ban from meetings and be cut off from receiving school board communications.

Imagine a provincial legislature or Parliament in which MPs and MPPs faced censure because they railed against some action of the government of the day after a bill was passed. Legislatures would become silent as tombs. The business of government could roll on efficiently without the messy distraction of nasty comments by opposition members. The trains might run on time, but why elect people who can’t oppose?

Why indeed? Perhaps “upholding” represents a step towards greater so-called efficiencies of government by putting the muzzle on elected people in general. It certainly represents a trend.

Let The Director Look After Your Constituents

Trustees must also “ …(E)ntrust the day to day management of the board to its staff to the board’s director of education.” In other words, don’t bother principals, superintendents and other board officials with constituent concerns, go through the Byzantine channels provided by the director’s office. Do parents have concerns about discipline, about a health issue? Are they calling the local trustee because they want to know what’s being done about a promised playground improvement, about after-school activities? Leave it to the professionals. Trustees musn’t call up the local principal to find out what’s going on.

As a former school principal, it was pleasant not to have the trustee barking in my ear about this or that issue. These conversations were usually political, and it was not always easy to be diplomatic. I often didn’t agree with the particular slant a trustee might take, I questioned motives and I occasionally saw the point. But that was the job. If I wanted to be left alone, I wouldn’t have applied to run a school. It was politics at its most direct and local. The neighborhood school was the one place people could have something to say about the issues that affected the most important people they knew – their children.

So, irritating and anxious-making as it might be, I wouldn’t take away trustees access to their local schools. It’s another step away from democracy – another way of showing that people don’t actually own the schools they pay for – that they actually belong to this ever-expanding beast called the Ministry of Education. It has its own plans for what workers’ children are to become as it prepares them to take their place in the knowledge economy – whatever that is or will be – or variations on the theme of Wal Mart or MacDonald’s. It doesn’t need interference and distractions from low-level elected trustees.

It would probably be small comfort to this new trustee to know that Bill 177 was more ambitious in an earlier draft. Left out of the final version was a section enabling government to pretty much do whatever it wanted without bothering to consult the legislature “… to make regulations about the roles, responsibilities, powers and duties of board, directors of education and board members, including chairs of boards.” That much aside, the Ministry may still set out regulations for trustee codes of conduct, require boards to meet academic achievement standards set by the Ministry and take them over it they fall short.

To be a trustee in this climate is to live in a state of continual insult.

We allow their slide into irrelevance at our peril. The diminution of their influence on local politics is alarming. It underlines the contempt of executive layers of government toward those chosen by constituents. Trustees are the most vulnerable of elected people – the easiest to legislate against and yet one of the closest to the thousands neighborhoods that add up to a nation. As they go, who will follow?


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