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.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.