Every child left behind: How education cuts fuel inequality

Sarmishta Subramanian: The solution to inequality is making public systems the best they can be. Why is the Ford government doing the complete opposite?
TORONTO, ONTARIO, CUBA - 2019/04/06: Four children with signs and yelling against Education Cuts. Thousands of people including lot of children protests the Education cuts proposed by the Provincial Conservative Government led by Doug Ford. The event is held in the Grounds of Queen’s Park which is the seat of the Provincial Government. (Roberto Machado Noa/Getty Images)

The college admissions scandal in the U.S. has led to a flurry of stories over the past few months about the cheating rich: investigations into how the system is defrauded, op-eds about class privilege and entitlement. There are shame lists of those who have pleaded guilty, and calls for jail terms. Canadian universities, meanwhile, have rushed to point out that not only has this kind of straight-up cheating not happened here, but our system is more broadly accessible and less swayed by elite extracurriculars and Ivy League-worthy social experiences.

But it’s easy to denounce the cheaters. Their behaviour was criminal. What underlies their choices—the search for a competitive edge—is common to most selection criteria, and most parents. The real challenge is not with a system that breaks down, as it did in this case. It’s with the system when it is working just as it is meant to work. In an article a few years ago in University Affairs, Marsha Barber, a Ryerson University professor and mother of a medical student, detailed the highly competitive process of med-school admissions, and who gets in when every applicant has superlative grades: students who have a second degree or leadership experience, or unpaid research assistant jobs or volunteer stints—that is, kids who can afford to work for free. Some version of this exists in every faculty, every institution. It is inequality baked into the system.

The truth is, if you have the means, you’d be uncommonly kind, or stupid, not to use them to better your life and your family’s. Even the most fiercely fair-minded who eschew private schools on principle are unlikely to skip after-school math or nature class, or any programs that nourish children’s minds or improve their prospects. These programs are often available just to the well-off—parents who can not only pay for them, but have the time to sign up, can shepherd children across town and perhaps coach them into performing better. And as the end of school nears, millions of Canadian parents are preparing for that yearly ritual of unequal opportunity: summer camp.

READ: Confession: I lie and cheat to help my kids (and so do you)

Meritocracies reward those who do well—and therefore reward practice, good instruction and opportunities for learning, all of which can be bought with money. The alternative, a system not based on merit, obviously isn’t a good answer. And it’s not desirable, or possible, to legislate our way into equality by removing the opportunities available to the few. All we can do is make the systems available to everyone else the best they can be.

These are under threat in Ontario and in Alberta, which is preparing for a school spending freeze this fall and a deep corporate tax cut (by one-third of the current rate of 12 per cent). In the U.S., there are glimpses of another approach. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential platform includes offering free college tuition and forgiving existing student debt—a $1.25-trillion investment in higher education, to be paid for with a wealth tax. (While her tax is controversial, the idea of taxing the ultra-rich more is not: even in a Fox News survey, 70 per cent of respondents favoured higher taxes for those who earn $10 million or more.) Meanwhile, Joe Biden’s platform includes a plan for hefty investment in low-income schools.

What’s behind this is not merely fairness or common decency. Inequality is one of the biggest risk factors to economic and political stability today, as identified by a range of hard-nosed experts, from bank CEOs and the U.S. Federal Reserve chief to World Economic Forum researchers. Awareness of inequality’s costs has seldom been higher. It harms the economy, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote in 2016, a claim backed up by the IMF and the OECD. Massive wealth is generated, but from sources such as investment income, property and stratospheric executive salaries, which Stiglitz argues don’t actually create jobs. (A CEO in 2012, he notes, typically made 354 times an average worker’s wage—compared with 20 times in 1965—regardless of performance.) Meanwhile, stagnant wages and high debt at the bottom end threaten to topple the whole system, as nearly happened in 2008.

The old argument, the Conference Board of Canada notes in an article on inequality, was that “equality and efficiency were trade-offs”—that some level of inequality encourages investment and productivity. That thinking has changed as evidence piles up to the contrary. A new report from the U.K.’s Institute for Fiscal Studies expressed alarm that income inequality in the U.K. is nearing that of America, where the top 10 per cent makes, on average, nine times as much as the bottom 90 per cent. Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat said in April that income inequality “keeps [him] up at night.”

That’s what’s so troubling about the shifts afoot in parts of Canada. The threat they pose to student performance is likely to have long-term consequences for equality of opportunity, social mobility and income—at a time when economists are paying anxious attention to such things. A massive study on inequality by Raj Chetty, an economics professor at Harvard University, has shown that being in a “quality classroom” (experienced teacher, small class size) from kindergarten to Grade 3 correlates with higher earnings in adulthood. Chetty also found that a college or university education (still) breaks the usual correlation between our parents’ income and our own—i.e., it allows for the next generation to do better financially, and even break out of a poverty cycle.

READ: Is the Liberals’ federal poverty-reduction strategy even really a strategy? 

Cuts to public education don’t just hurt the vulnerable. (Among the casualties in Ontario are free university tuition for low-income students, grants that fund classroom tutors and after-school jobs and, likely, nutrition programs for kids in low-income neighbourhoods.) They also hurt a large swath in the middle. For instance, Ontario classes won’t top out at 28 students. The class sizes discussed in the new funding allocations for teachers are averages, so classes could have as many as 40 students, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation points out. In Calgary, where some classes for core subjects already have as many as 47 kids, schools are now bracing for a $40-million funding gap and considering cuts to how many credits students can take before they graduate. As in Ontario, they expect to see cuts to non-teaching staff such as special-education assistants, librarians and guidance counsellors.

Fewer staff in schools doesn’t just mean bigger classes; it means fewer adults available to kids—adults who can help students through a tough academic year, anxiety or depression, social isolation or changes at home. That covers a lot of students. In a 20-year Centre for Addiction and Mental Health study of Ontario schools—the country’s longest such study—nearly 40 per cent of 11,000-plus students from Grades 7 to 12 reported experiencing moderate to serious anxiety or depression. Almost three in 10 said their mental health seriously impacts their grades. Kids who fall behind irretrievably are kids who don’t graduate, and adults without a diploma cost society $1.3 billion a year in social services and criminal justice spending, a 2009 study from Simon Fraser University found. Women who drop out fare particularly badly: StatsCan reports that those aged 25 to 34 get 60 per cent of their income from government transfers.

The irony is that while Canada doesn’t do well on income inequality—the Conference Board notes we are the 12th worst out of 17 countries that are among the world’s wealthiest—our school system is actually well positioned to help close that gap. The BBC dubbed Canada an “education superpower” in 2017. We perform well in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings for both high performance and greater equity, meaning “high performance among students from all backgrounds” rather than a small group boosting averages. Notwithstanding the Conservatives’ rhetoric of fixing a broken system, Ontario’s reading scores are second best nationally, tied with Quebec (P.E.I. is number one), and Canada is second best in the world on the OECD 2015 rankings. Canada’s Grade 10 math scores rank in the OECD top 10 (which should end the debate on those Grade 6 EQAO numbers), and Ontario is fourth in the country in math. High school graduation rates in the province rose from an abysmal 56 per cent in 2004 (post Common Sense Revolution—coincidence?) to 80 per cent in 2017. All this in a jurisdiction with a high proportion of ESL students and new Canadians, with all the attendant language and transition challenges. The cutbacks jeopardize that record.

While public schools cut back on specialized courses, wealthier kids will continue to access opportunities that prepare them for success later in life (Gary John Norman/Getty)

People who can afford better will, of course, be fine everywhere. While public schools cut back on specialized courses in jazz choir or international law or outdoor education, wealthier kids will continue to access “Orchestral Strings” or “Analyzing Current Economic Issues” or Outward Bound-style adventures—opportunities that prepare them academically, psychologically and socially for success later in life. While high school students in the country’s largest province must sit at their screens completing the four mandatory e-learning credits they need to graduate, kids at some private schools, including the Silicon Valley schools favoured by Apple and Google employees, will learn in pointedly screen-free classrooms, accumulating hands-on experience that serves them splendidly on college application forms. In an increasingly global world, these are the people with whom young Canadians will compete.

There are reasonable ways to find efficiencies and hone systems. Whatever the anticipated funding freezes may bring in Alberta, Calgary’s education board embarked on a two-year review, complete with parent consultations and reviews of enrolment data and projections, to address a severe problem of overcrowding. (Some 40 schools are 15 to 27 percentage points above the 85 per cent capacity the province deems acceptable.) Ontario, too, could take a more deliberate approach.

But the false narrative of the bottom line often enables distinctly bottom-line-unfriendly decisions. Long-term financial prudence isn’t about balancing a budget a year earlier than planned, as the Conservative government in Ontario is doing—or in two years, as federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer was proposing before he reversed course recently. And growth isn’t merely about slashing taxes; a new U.S. congressional report finds that the Trump administration’s 2017 tax cuts did very little to stimulate the U.S. economy while costing it revenues. A growing chorus of very fiscally minded voices is saying, rather, that good fiscal sense includes eliminating inequalities that cost economies and challenge political stability. Stiglitz cites the OECD, which estimates that “in countries like the U.S., the U.K. and Italy, overall economic growth would have been six to nine percentage points higher in the past two decades had income inequality not risen.” And in a 2018 Gallup study, countries with greater income inequality, the Economist found, also report higher incidences of assault, theft and concerns about personal safety. A 2014 American study found a similar correlation among U.S. states.

There are two main ways to fix inequality: design healthy public systems to encourage equality of opportunity, or redistribute income radically. Maybe the Ford government has a secret plan to redistribute income. The more practical answer would be to make the public system better, or at least not worse. The education cuts in Ontario are accompanied by $28 million in cuts to Children’s Aid Societies (the most vulnerable of the vulnerable); cuts to public health in the midst of a vaccination crisis; library cuts that will limit interlibrary loans, which restricts the movement of books in rural areas—a good stand-in for the hit to social mobility that comes with cutting off access to information and knowledge. Tough decision-making doesn’t have to be about compassion or humanity—though it would be nice if there were a measure of those somewhere. Pure self-interest, too, should tell us that compromising the prospects of a huge majority is not how you create “a place to grow.”

This article appears in print in the July 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Every child left behind.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.