|Comment Boards and bureaucrats
are sinking our students
by MARTHA HARRON
08/26/2002 The Globe and Mail Metro A13 "All material
Copyright (c) Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. and
licensors. All rights reserved."
The continuing power struggle between school boards and
provincial governments, particularly in Ontario, is hurting
our students, demoralizing our classroom teachers, and
draining our resources. It has to stop.
In Ontario, the province wants to make all the decisions
about how much money to spend and how to spend it, while
leaving the work of implementing and enforcing its policies to
school boards. Naturally, the boards aren't motivated to
make this work. The fight isn't about children's needs, it's
about money and power with the grownups playing a game of
chicken, and the kids caught in the middle.
How did we get into this acrimonious mess?
Start with amalgamations. In the 1960s, an Ontario
Conservative government amalgamated school boards,
reducing more than 1,000 boards to 367. That move didn't
save taxpayers money, it just created bigger boards, which
tended to be less efficient and less responsive to the needs
of their school communities -- particularly in big cities. By
the 1980s, the urban landscape was dotted with glossy
buildings called "education centres," which had no students
in them, while children shared textbooks in crowded
classrooms and moldy portables.
In the late 1990s, Ontario amalgamated boards again, cutting
their number in half, roughly doubling the territory each has
to cover. Now funding is distributed among the boards on a
per-pupil basis, according to a complicated formula that
makes adjustments for individual students' needs (such as
English-as-a-second-language classes), and regional
disparities, including transportation and heating costs.
The formula also specifies how much is to be spent inside
the classroom, on such items as teachers and textbooks,
and how much outside the classroom, on items like
superintendents and secretaries.
Part of the current problem is that no amount of tinkering
with the formula -- which is already breathtaking in its
complexity -- can compensate for the fact that every school
is different, and has different needs. Some schools need
more computers, some need more books, some need more
sports equipment, and most of them need a librarian.
Schools don't need such formulaic, centralized
decision-making. Surely if a school's staff, students and
parents can agree on different spending priorities, then the
principal should be able to deviate from the allocations in
the funding formula, provided that decision is approved by a
two-thirds majority of the school council (most schools have
such a school community advisory body).
In the most recent Ontario standoff, school board trustees in
Toronto, Ottawa and Hamilton said they can't balance their
budgets because the funding they receive from the province
is so inadequate. Boards can no longer raise their own taxes
or operate at a deficit, and have to share their rich tax base
with the rest of the province. True, they have failed to cut
costs effectively -- simply because highly paid bureaucrats
cannot be expected to eliminate themselves.
Enter the provincially appointed auditor, another highly paid
bureaucrat. He says the Toronto, Ottawa and Hamilton
boards can balance their budgets by closing pools, and
cutting back on music classes and even computer purchases.
(Why not get rid of students altogether? Think of the money
boards would save.)
Do we need school boards? Probably. It doesn't make sense for
school to create its own pool of supply teachers, its own transportation
network, its own special services, its own film library, and so forth.
surely it would make more sense to devolve some power back to schools.
What if we had per-pupil funding in fact, not just in formula? What
money followed the child into the school, and the school gave some
to the board, instead of the other way around?
It's unlikely schools would willingly part with half of their
education budget in order to receive the special ed services provided
the school board, but that is what they cost. At least half of the
never makes it to the school, largely because of the Interview,
and Review Committee (IPRC) process by which a team of experts
from school to school, and assigns each special ed student a diagnostic
category that determines the level of funding. These experts have never
taught the child in question -- often never see the child. Yet their
decision is key. Even if the student, the parents, classroom teachers,
department heads and the principal all agree on a custom-made
education plan for that student, the special-needs child may languish
months waiting to be IPRC-ed.
Most initiatives in education start out being about the students.
end up being about jobs for grownups. No wonder Mark Twain said, "First
God made idiots. This was for practice. Then He made school boards."
Provinces should not try to be giant school boards, micromanaging
school system from afar. By all means, let the province set the
standards. But when it comes to implementation, it's time to
of the decision-making back to our educators on the front lines: the
teachers, principals and vice-principals who actually spend time with
Martha Harron, author of Don Harron: A Parent Contradiction,
served on the Ontario Parent Council, an advisory body
to Ontario's Ministry of Education.