Ontario’s public education needs "renewed vision"

Students are paying for art supplies, sports equipment, and core materials, finds new report

Students are forking over their own money for art supplies, sports equipment and, in some cases, even having to pay for materials in core learning classes such as science or French just to meet their educational needs, a new report suggests.

“You’re almost penalized if you’re not essentially good at basic math,” said Jonathan Scott, 19, for the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, painting a picture of students’ struggle.

“If you want to be an artist you’re kind of less important to the school system,” said Scott, who represented students at the Simcoe County District School Board during his last year of high school in 2007-08.

Now, an organization committed to improving public education wants the provincial government to address these concerns.

A new report from People for Education is calling for a “renewed vision” for public schools and lists more than a dozen areas where it wants Ontario to take action.

“We seem to be squeezing out the arts and culture,” said Annie Kidder, the group’s executive director.

Kidder said students in high schools are having to fit arts education and sports activities into timetables already packed with basic credit requirements. Many times, students end up paying for these extra opportunities outside of school.

It’s also an issue for children in elementary schools, where fundraising initiatives in affluent neighbourhoods typically mean those schools have more resources. At home, those parents can also offer their kids books and money for recreation programs.

But in poorer neighbourhoods, which lack the ability to fundraise and can’t provide extra-curricular activities at home, children are “doubly disadvantaged,” Kidder said.

“What’s worrying about this to us is the potential for inequity,” she said.

Private investments from corporations into schools is another fundraising conundrum, Kidder said, as it can create problems if private money influences a school’s decision making.

According to the report, 63 per cent of secondary schools charge fees for labs and course material. More than 50 per cent of schools charge fees for art classes.

In the 2007-08 school year, schools and parents raised $595 million through fundraising and corporate and charitable donations.

Kidder said one way to address the issue would be through a ministry-created policy on school fundraising.

Education Minister Kathleen Wynne said she doesn’t want to limit a community’s ability to raise money by creating policy, but added she’s concerned about some of the numbers in the report.

“It does concern me when kids have to pay for labs and course materials,” she said.

“I don’t think anybody would want to see private dollars determining location of school, curriculum or any of those things, those are the kind of things where we have to draw the line,” she added, acknowledging there can be problems associated with corporate donations.

The report also looked at issues of funding for special education, class size and declining enrolment among others.

Overall, Kidder said she wants the government to find new ways to look at education by focusing on the creation of community hubs for parents and children. The hubs would mean schools would house medical facilities or offices inside the building.

The government is already examining this community-hub model, Wynne said.

“It’s something we’re actively engaged in and in the coming months you’ll see more action on that,” she said.

– The Canadian Press