The Toronto District School Board’s recently announced plan, called Elementary Programs of Choice, has resurrected the issue of school choice here in Canada. It has emerged out of an initial vision for an all-boys’ school, first advanced by education director Dr. Chris Spence and now presented as a broader strategy aimed at rejuvenating a stagnating public school system. Whatever the intention, the Toronto initiative has raised the key question of whether it represents a significant departure from the “one-size-fits-all” philosophy that has long dominated Canadian public education.
The Toronto Board administration is proposing to allow four specialized elementary schools to open in September of 2011 — a school for boys, a school for girls, a choir school, and a sports academy. They will be publicly-funded and have an open enrolment policy. No tuition fees will be charged at these schools. Board Director Chris Spence has publicly stated that one of the prime objectives is to stem the flow of students from the public to the private system.
Like many other urban school systems, the Toronto board is struggling to cope with declining enrollment, driven by the middle class flight to the suburbs and the mushrooming of private schools. One look at the annual Our Kids magazine directory of Private Schools tells the story. Many Toronto families with young children are turning to private venture or independent schools for programs better suited to their child’s individual needs.
What’s happening in Toronto is not unique. On April 5, Michael Zwaagstra of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy correctly pointed out that Toronto is only following Edmonton’s lead. Indeed, more than two decades ago, the Edmonton Public School Board blazed the trail by adopting “school choice” as a cardinal principle and by opening the door to a wider range of alternative school programs, including aboriginal education, Christian studies, science, and the performing arts.
The educational battle lines are now forming over the Toronto Board initiative. Defenders of “as is” public schooling like Annie Kidder of Ontario’s People for Education see this as the thin edge of the wedge leading to the erosion of social cohesion and the possible death knell for traditional neighbourhood schools. Fired up by a recent National Post commentary, Doretta Wilson of SQE has applauded the move as a positive sign. The SQE blog, School for Thought, hoped for a breakthrough, but wondered if the initial plan amounted to “tossing a bone to a famished dog.”
The Toronto School Choice plan begs a few key questions: Is the plan the first crack in the standardized, “equal experience for all” public school system? Or does the plan offer what Kate Tennier termed a “calculated choice” aimed at satisfying current parent demands while staving-off potential structural change? Will the plan actually make a difference for children in disadvantaged, lower income communities? Are we now on the road to broadening school choice or simply conducting new school experiments on children? Now, over to you.