Archive for the ‘Alternative Schools’ Category

The Director of Canada’s largest school district, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Dr. John Malloy, is, once again, on the hot seat for attempting to limit school choice in public education.  On October 24, 2017,  facing a severe public backlash, Malloy was quick to distance himself from a TDSB draft report recommendation calling for the phasing out of the board’s arts-focused schools. Whether it revealed his ‘hidden agenda’ is another matter altogether.

TDSBMalloyActionWhile Director Malloy ‘walked back’ from that particular TDSB Enhancing Equity Task Force recommendation, it was abundantly clear that TDSB under Malloy is prepared to stand firm on implementing its own version of “enhancing equity” for all students. That’s also perfectly consistent with Malloy’s stance while serving as Director of the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board from 2009 to 2014. As a chief superintendent, he’s well known for putting in motion “educational equity” projects that seek to limit school choice in public education and threaten the existence of specialized program schools.

Malloy is heavily invested in the TDSB Enhancing Equity Task Force and its core mission.  In his introductory video, explaining the TDSB initiative, he professes to be a champion of the board’s ” long-standing commitment to equity and inclusion” and expresses concern that it is not being fully met, judging from the persisting inequities affecting ‘racialized’ and ‘marginalized’ students.  His lead facilitator, Liz Rykert goes further in identifying the supposed source of those inequities: “There are barriers, creating divisions with schools, or between schools. The impact has been more inequitable outcomes.”

Specialized programs and streaming of Grade 9 students stand in the way of that “commitment” and are the real targets of the TDSB Task Force.  “Our commitment stands,” Malloy declares in the video. “We want schools to be inclusive, engaging environments for each and every student. That means things must change. We also know that change is hard. It impacts us. We need to work together to make it happen.”

Malloy’s metal was tested in Hamilton and he barely survived the battle.  Pushing hard for school closures in 2013-14, he ran smack up against a public uprising when he went to war with a popular high school principal Paul Beattie and forced through the closure of Parkview School, Hamilton’s highly-acclaimed high school for special needs students.

After placating parents and students by promising to transfer Beattie with them to Mountain S.S., he reneged on that commitment and aroused a storm of student protest in September of 2014. Shortly after the October 2014 trustee election, Malloy was seconded to the Ministry of Education and left town. While Malloy was considering his options, former principal Beattie, now retired, surfaced as a senior advisor to a Citizen Forum organized to serve as a watchdog on the HWDSB.

Malloy’s TDSB initiative sprung out of TDSB research  over the past decade on the uneven academic performance of racial groups and a 2017 OISE study of the board’s specialized arts programs.  Conducted by OISE professor Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez, the study found that three of the four TDSB arts program schools were populated primarily with students who were white and drawn disproportionately from the city’s more affluent districts. It also criticized the schools for offering a curriculum reflecting “a traditional Eurocentric view of the arts,” including orchestral music, ballet, studio painting, and sculpture.

The author of the OISE report, used to justify the TDSB Task Force’s mandate, was openly hostile to the arts-focused schools. “These are public schools, ” he told CBC News. ” The public is paying for these schools.” Based upon his survey findings, he added, they were “kind of like private schools within a public system.”  It’s statements like this that tend to breed suspicion about what’s really driving the TDSB agenda.

Students and parents at Toronto’s special program schools are fighting back, including many from diverse ethno-cultural backgrounds.  “It really comes as a shock,” said Frank Hong, a student at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute. He’s in the TOPS program, which specializes in math, sciences, and language arts. “[These programs are] an essential part of the school community,” he told CBC News, ” and to take them away from communities and from potential future students is horrible.”  Threatening to cancel the programs caused “a lot of outrage” on social media, said Niam Pattni, a student in the MaCS program at William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate Institute.

The adverse public reaction, capped by a Toronto newspaper column by The Globe and Mail‘s Marcus Gee, prompted Malloy and his Task Force to pull back on outright advocacy and to explain that these were just “draft recommendations.” Most of the public response tended to echo Gee’s Don’t Kill Specialty Schools” plea and to point out that there were far better ways to close the achievement gap and to promote equality in the school system.

Few who are familiar with Toronto’s alternative and specialty schools, including those for special needs students, would swallow the argument that they are simply “citadels of white privilege.” The TDSB, for all its shortcomings, is still a leader in providing a tremendous array of school options for students and parents, demonstrating every day that there are a multitude of different ways to reach and engage students.

Tampering with what works in education is not the best way forward. Reading the fine print in the TDSB Task Force report, it all comes to a vote when the TDSB Board of Trustees meet on December 13, 2017.  We’ll all be watching.

What’s the real objective of Dr. John Malloy’s TDSB Enhancing Equity Task Force? Who wins when school systems eliminate lighthouse programs and limit choice for students and parents?  Since when are “specialty schools” a high priority problem? Does a school system become stronger by lopping-off or trimming its centres of excellence? Who would really benefit if the Toronto DSB cut its special programs and ‘lowered all boats in the water’? 

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The McTutor World is still expanding across the globe and now has a significant foothold in Canada, particularly in the metropolitan areas and fast-growing suburbs. Private tutoring is the “new normal” for urban families, continues to grow by leaps and bounds, and remains the fastest growing segment of Canadian K-12 education.

The tutoring business has bounced back from the blip of the 2008 economic meltdown and is stronger than ever, generating more than $1 billion in revenues a year. From 2010 to 2013, Kumon Math centre enrollment in Canada rose by 23% and is now averaging 5 % growth a year. One in three city parents in Toronto now hire private tutors for their kids and current estimates approach that proportion in Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal.

My September 4-5, 2014 CBC Radio Drive Home Show interviews focused on the trend and tackled the bigger question of why today’s parents were turning increasingly to after-school tutors to supplement the regular school program. A recent inquiry from Peter Stockland at Cardus Foundation prompted me to take another look to see what has changed over the past three years. That’s why I decided to revisit the whole question and update my research findings.

Over the past three years, the private tutoring explosion has continued, unabated, and the global market forecast to reach $102.8 billion by 2018 is now projected to be $227 billion by 2022.  A September 2016 world trends study by Global Industry Analysts attributed the current boom to three main factors: 1) growing pressure of students to achieve higher grades; 2) the rise of individualized, self-paced academic tutoring plans; and 3) the need to acquire competencies and new knowledge to compete in the global job market. E-learning and online programs are assuming a bigger and bigger share of the private tutoring business.

Six global trends in tutoring are now more visible right across Canada:

  • the rise of 24 x 7 private online tutoring;
  • increased focus on skill-based learning (reading, mathematics, and coding);
  • growing desire for academic excellence;
  • increase in education expenditures ( per pupil and as per cent of GDP);
  • the emergence of Age Inappropriate Learning (AIL), code for ‘reach ahead’ programs;
  • shortage of teachers for tutoring centres and colleges.

Private tutoring is now a global business. Eighty-five companies are active globally and five are dominant: JEI, Kaplan, Educomp Solutions, Kumon/Tutor Vista, and Daekyo Company.  The Asia Pacific countries, as might be expected, account for a 58.7 per cent share of the business.

We now inhabit an increasingly competitive global world. International student testing is one symptom and so are provincial testing programs — and parents are better informed than ever before on where students and schools rank in terms of student achievement.  While high school graduation rates are rising, student performance indicators are either flat-lined or declining, especially in Atlantic Canada. In most Canadian provinces, university educated parents also have higher expectations for their children and the entire public education system is geared more to university preparation than to employability skills.

System issues continue to influence parents who turn to tutors to address learning deficits in their children.   A “Success for All” philosophy and the new focus on “student wellbeing” rather than student achievement provide further inducements to enroll children and teens in foundational and accelerated tutorial programs after school and on weekends. A 2015 Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) survey showed more Ontario parents opting for private tutoring and, for the first time, that parents who identified as middle or upper class more likely to be using private tutors, giving their children a further advantage.

New elementary school curricula in Literacy and Mathematics compound the problem —and both “Discovery Math” and “Whole Language” reading approaches now face a groundswell of parental dissent, especially in Manitoba, Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario.  It’s no accident that the private tutors provide early reading instruction utilizing systematic phonics and most teach Math using traditional numbers based methods.

Canadian academic researchers Scott Davies and Janice Aurini identified the dramatic shift, starting in the mid-1990s, toward the franchising of private tutoring. Up until then, tutoring was mostly a “cottage industry” run in homes and local libraries, mainly serving high schoolers, and focusing on homework completion and test/exam preparation. With the entry of franchises like Sylvan Learning, Oxford Learning, and Kumon, tutoring evolved into private “learning centres” in cities and the affluent suburbs.  The new tutoring centres, typically compact 1,200 sq. ft spaces in shopping plazas, offered initial learning level assessments, study skills programs, Math skills instruction, career planning, and even high school and university admissions testing preparation.

The tutoring explosion is putting real pressure on today’s public schools. Operating from 8:30 am until 3:00 pm, with “bankers’ hours,” regular schools are doing their best to cope with the new demands and competition, in the form of virtual learning and after-hours tutoring programs.  Parents are expecting more and, like Netflicks, on demand!  A much broader public conversation about the future of traditional, bricks and mortar, limited hours schooling is now underway and will force school systems to look at more flexibility in defining and limiting school hours.

What explains the increasing growth of private tutoring?  Will the latest trend toward e-learning with online tutoring programs last? How will we insure that access to private tutors does not further deepen the educational inequities already present in Canada and the United States? Will the “Shadow Education” system expand to the point that public schools are eventually forced to respond to the competition?  

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As students head back to school in September, USA Today Education Beat writer Greg Toppo recently reported that more American students than ever before will arrive dressed in a school-sanctioned uniforms.  Over the past decade, the adoption of school dress codes and uniforms in American public schools has expanded, even though the evidence of its impact on improving schools remains inconclusive.  In Canada, school uniforms are popular in independent private schools, but — with the exception of Quebec and Catholic high schools — still remain relatively scarce in regular co-educational public high schools.

MrDXavierAcademyNearly one in five American public schools required uniforms in 2010, up from just 1 in 8 a decade earlier, according to U. S. Department of Education statistics.  That’s a whopping 60% growth in uniform requirements in American state schools.  Boring deeper, more than half of public schools now have some sort of dress code.  The National Center for Education Statistics reports that about 57% of school now have a “strict dress code,” up from 47% a decade earlier.  Comparable statistics do not exist for Canadian schools, given the provincial education silos, but school uniforms are more prevalent as a result of the gradual spread of private and publicly-funded alternative schools.  It is no accident. for instance, that the mythical Xavier Academy in the CBC-TV sitcom Mr. D. features scrubbed kids in very traditional school uniforms.

School uniforms have a chequered history in North American education.  Private independent schools associated with the Canadian Association of Independent Schools (CAIS), and, to a lesser extent, the U.S. National Association of Independent Schools, have long championed school uniforms, even though some of their member schools have adhered to more relaxed dress codes.  In Quebec, school uniforms are far more common, influenced by the classical Quebec private colleges and Montreal’s English independent schools.  In Ontario and other provinces, publicly-funded Catholic Separate Schools have tended to maintain school-approved uniforms, ranging from jackets and ties to crested collared white polo shirts.

The idea of introducing school uniforms into the public schools enjoyed an upsurge in the 1980s and early 1990s.   In the 1980s, Washington’s Mayor Marion Barry attempted to introduce uniforms to close the performance gap between public school students and those in D.C.’s Catholic schools.   While the D.C. plan fizzled, in 1987, Cherry Hill Elementary School in Baltimore, MD, introduced what is believed to be the first school-wide uniform policy as “a means of  reducing  clothing costs and social pressures on children.”  Nine years later (1996), speaking in Long Beach, California, President Bill Clinton announced his support of that district’s uniform initiative: “School uniforms are one step that may help break the cycle of violence, truancy and disorder by helping young students understand what really counts is what kind of people they are,” Clinton said,  With this presidential nod of approval, more schools and school districts began to adopt school uniforms and stricter dress codes.

School uniforms were given a boost in Canada by the emergence in the 1980s and early 1990s of an “Academy Movement” in the public school system.  In Montreal, the decline in the English population after the Quebec Referendum played a role in the 1983 establishment of Royal West Academy and Royal Vale School, both public-private hybrid schools with uniforms and entrance examinations.  The Toronto School Board, facing competition from local private and Catholic schools, moved in 1989 to transform Scarborough’s near empty R.H. King High School into an Academy with traditional teaching, formal uniforms, and formal daily student mentoring groups.  Two years later, in September 1991, the York Region School Board did the same, establishing Woodbridge College as a traditional Grade 7 to OAC/13 school with a rigorous curriculum, uniforms, and more structured learning.  While many of these experiments faltered because of system-wide resistance and aenemic leadership, they did leave a symbolic legacy in the form of uniformed students.

Introducing school uniforms is sure to spark a raging public debate in public education, even in the United Kingdom where uniformed schoolkids are ubiquitous..  A recent piece in EduGuide provided a very handy summary of the arguments, pro and con, over the adoption of school-sanctioned, formal uniforms:

The Possible Benefits, commonly voiced by educators as well as parents:

  • Increase students’ self-esteem because they do not have to participate in the “school fashion show.” Dressing alike helps students learn that what really counts is on the inside.
  • Decrease the influence of gangs and gang violence. Uniforms make it more difficult to sneak in weapons, and easier to ban gang colors or symbols.
  • Improve learning by reducing distraction, sharpening focus on schoolwork and making the classroom a more serious environment.
  • Promote a sense of teamwork and increase school spirit.
  • Mask the income difference between families. All children dress the same, whether rich or poor.
  • Improve behavior and increase school attendance. Some students actually skip school to avoid embarrassment about their clothing.
  • Save families time and money. Many parents report that three uniforms cost about the same as one pair of designer jeans. Even some students admit that wearing the same colors everyday makes it easier to shop for new clothes.
  • Help administrators quickly identify outsiders who could be a danger to students.

The Downside, usually expressed by high school students and parents:

  • Violate the right to freedom of speech and expression.
  • Cost too much for families who already struggle to make ends meet.
  • Merely put a band-aid on the problem of school violence and fail to address the real issues behind it.
  • Emphasize conformity, not individuality, and do not allow students to develop their identity.
  • Hide warning signs that point to problems. Often the way a child dresses can indicate the way he is feeling. Uniforms eliminate these red flags.
  • Offer ways for administrators to exert power and an unnecessary amount of authority.
  • Have not been statistically proven to decrease violence or promote discipline.
  • Fail to allow students to learn to make good choices based on their own values.

Much has been made of the school-based research that supposedly shows school uniforms do not necessarily improve schools or student performance levels. One particular American book, David Brunsma’s The School Uniform Movement and What It Tells Us About American Education (2004) is routinely trotted out to support this claim.  Defenders of uniforms counter with  Virginia Draa’s 2005 study of 64 Ohio high schools linking uniforms with improved attendance and  graduation rates and fewer student suspensions.  Neither study demonstrated much impact on student academic performance.

School uniforms, as supporters of dress codes well know, mean little unless they are embedded in a school culture that affirms and supports the pursuit of high standards and improved academic performance.  Studying public schools that climb on the school uniform bandwagon proves little and the American public school world is littered with bad precedents.  In Canada, experiments like Woodbridge College go awry when the missionary leaders move on and school boards revert to “every day garden variety” progressive pedagogy and practice in schools with very average, uniformed kids.  Studying schools with Uniforms Plus higher standards, sound core curriculum, character education, structured learning, and compulsory athletics or cultural activities would likely produce far different results.

Do school uniforms, by themselves, make schools better?  Is the adoption of school uniforms in North American public schools largely symbolic rather than transformative?  Is it possible to maintain a strict school dress code without turning kids into uniform thinkers?  What would a broader study pitting traditional school methods, including uniforms, against progressive, student-centred methods actually prove, if anything?

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Inclusive education in Canada has found its most ardent champions in New Brunswick, in the Canadian Association for Community Living, and in a number of faculties of education. From his perch in New Brunswick, Dr. Gordon Porter, has played a prominent role, most recently as the Director of Inclusive Education Canada. That is why the recent report on New Brunswick’s inclusive education system, co-authored by Porter and Angela AuCoin,  attracted so much  attention from both  the inclusionists and their critics.

New Brunswick Minister of Education Jody Carr hailed the release of the report in his June 5, 2012 announcement that New Brunswick was reversing its cost cutting course and spending $62 million more over the next three years on implementing inclusive education.  http://www2.gnb.ca/content/gnb/en/news/news_release.2012.06.0494.html  It amounted to a ringing endorsement of the long-awaited report which recommended that the province forge ahead with its 25-year struggle to “transform the thinking of school leaders” and to make the regular classroom the focus of student support services. http://www.gnb.ca/0000/publications/comm/Inclusion.pdf

The Strengthening Inclusion, Strengthening Schools report, produced by the well-known inclusion theorists, may not be the final word on the subject. Striving for the “full inclusion” of all students in the publicly-funded school system is a most worthy goal, but the report’s findings reveal that it is still more of an illusion than a reality in today’s New Brunswick schools, especially for those students with severe learning disabilities or complex needs.

One in ten Canadians reportedly suffers from some kind of learning disability and between 2 % and 4% of New Brunswick’s public school students, numbering from 2,100 to 4,200, are struggling at school with serious learning challenges. The Porter-Aucoin report also acknowledges that a mixed bag of alternative school programs continue to exist, across the districts, serving some 1,000 or so students with significant learning challenges.

Serving growing numbers of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder will require flexibility and out-of- the box learning.  Some 1,238 of New Brunswick’s 74,579 Anglophone public school students have now been diagnosed with autism and many already require significant learning supports. It’s fast becoming the biggest challenge facing the province’s regular Kindergarten to Grade 12 schools.

Since the adoption of Wayne MacKay’s 2006 report on Inclusive Education, the province has pursued “full inclusion” in regular classrooms with dogged determination. The Education Department, working closely with Gordon Porter’s Inclusive Education Initiative and the New Brunswick Association for Community Living (NBACL) has become the leading proponent of the “one-size-fits all” regular classroom model.  More recently, the Department has become closely aligned with the NBACL, to the point where their websites virtually mirror one another.

Vocal critics of the current model, like Fredericton autism advocate Harold L. Doherty, charge that the province’s current regime is “philosophy-based” and turns a blind eye to students with “complex needs” who are being marginalized and eventually left by the wayside. http://autisminnb.blogspot.ca/2012/06/building-bigger-tent-is-badly-needed.html  Classroom teachers, lacking the expertise and resource support, according to the NBTA’s Heather Smith, can be overwhelmed by the growing numbers of “students in difficult situations.”

New Brunswick’s full adoption of Inclusive Education since 2006 has certainly tested the limits of the “all-inclusive classroom”  as the answer for all K-8 students and the vast majority of high schoolers.  Alberta, Ontario and Nova Scotia have all responded to shifts in the composition of the student population by offering more self-contained classes and viable alternative school programs.

The neighbouring province of Nova Scotia provides a stark contrast. There a small number of private, independent Special Education (Grade 3-12) schools have emerged since the 1970s to fill the gap by providing a vitally important “lifeline” in the continuum of student support services.  Demand for such schooling grew after 2000 to the point where the Nova Scotia Education began looking at implementing a provincial tuition support program serving students with more acute learning difficulties.

The Nova Scotia Tuition Support Program (TSP), initiated in September 2004, provides an option for students with special needs who cannot be served at their local public school. It was explicitly intended for short-term purposes and works on the assumption that students can eventually be successfully “transitioned” back into the regular system. The TSP provides funding which covers most of the tuition costs to attend designated special education private schools (DSEPS) and any public alternative education centres that might eventually be established in Nova Scotia.

My AIMS research study, Building a Bigger Tent, provides a detailed cost-benefit analysis of New Brunswick’s implementation of inclusion, identifies a significant hole in the system, and examines the pent-up demand for a full continuum of service, from mainstreaming to self-contained classes to special needs schools.  It rejects the findings of the Porter-Aucoin report and calls for a truly independent, arms-length review, seeking to assess the unmet demand for better alternative “lifeline” programs, meeting the needs simply unable to cope in a regular classroom.http://www.aims.ca/site/media/aims/Building%20a%20Bigger%20Tent.pdf

New Brunswick would benefit from taking a closer look at Nova Scotia’s service delivery model, including Special Education schools and the ground-breaking Tuition Support Program (TSP) rendering them more accessible to families with severely learning challenged children.

The Porter-Aucoin report may have produced more funding for student supports, but without “lifeline school programs” do not expect significantly improved outcomes for severely learning disabled kids. It’s high time that New Brunswick stepped back with a wider lens, started listening more to those currently locked in a system designed by theorists, in the interests of promoting a better educational environment for teachers and students alike.

Who is being ‘left out” or falling by the wayside in the New Brunswick model based upon “full inclusion” for all in a regular classroom, whatever the severity of their needs? What happens to students who cannot cope or thrive in the all-inclusive classroom?  Why do existing special programs and alternative education centres fly so much below the radar in the province?  What can New Brunswick learn from Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Alberta when it comes to support for kids with severe learning disabilities and complex needs?

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School Choice and Equity was recently recognized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as a critical public policy issue throughout the educational world.  An OECD study with that title published by Pauline Musset on 24 January 2012 surveyed and assessed the range and variety of school choice in 34 different countries. While Canada was among the countries included, much of the Canadian data was incomplete, rendering any definitive evaluation of where we stand virtually impossible. Not only that, but the detailed bibliography contained no academic research whatsoever emanating from Canada.   http://www.oecd.org/officialdocuments/publicdisplaydocumentpdf/?cote=EDU/WKP%282012%293&docLanguage=En

The Toronto Globe and Mail’s Erin Anderssen followed up on February 17, 2012 with a feature story, “Inequitable Schooling,” purporting to be responding to the OECD study, School Choice and Equity. Departing from Musset’s OECD paper, Anderssen focused almost entirely on one particular aspect — the potential impact of parental choice on “equality” within the educational system. http://m.theglobeandmail.com/life/parenting/education/school/why-inequality-is-growing-in-public-schools/article2341085/?service=mobile

Faced with incomplete data, the Globe writer, left to her own devices, cobbled together interviews from educators, parents and education school professors. In many ways, the piece missed the entire point of the OECD study and simply reinforced conventional educational thinking here in Canada. In what amounted to a Freudian slip, the OECD study was even misidentified as a report on “School Choice and Equality.”

Why take issue with The Globe and Mail ‘s Family and Relationships section story? For one simple reason: It completely ignores the OECD study’s most significant findings and the compelling case it presents for extending school choice to improve both student performance and social equity.  Nor does the piece ask the most fundamental question of all – why Canada stands out as one of the few countries not actively introducing school choice within the publicly-funded system.

The facts presented in the OECD report would be startling to most Canadians with children in the school system.  Over the past 25 years, over two-thirds of the OECD countries have increased “school choice opportunities for parents.”  Choice programs, Musset notes, “can be perceived as leading to a general improvement in the quality of education, and fostering efficiency and innovation.”  She also recognizes that school choice can “exacerbate inequities” if it is not introduced in a careful fashion seeking to balance “parental right to choose with the social imperative of equity.”

The OECD report, unlike Anderssen’s article, reaffirms the right and desire of most parents to choose a school.  It assesses the availablity of choice across the range of OECD countries, albeit with fragmentary evidence from Canada.  Countries offering the greatest school choice, according an OECD principals survey, are Australia, Japan, the Slovak Republic, and Belgium, and not the United States.

On average across OECD countries, 85% of students are enrolled in public education. Sixteen of the 33 countries (48.5%) have 10% or more of their students enrolled in either government-dependent or government-independent private schools. Five countries have adopted fee zones for attendance, eliminating districting by school planners: The Netherlands, New Zealand, Chile, Italy, and Belgium.  Most significantly, the OECD reports that private schools clearly outperform public schools in only three countries: Slovenia, Canada, and Ireland.

School choice, according to the report, “has become prevalent across OECD countries, and is increasing.”   While  United States school choice policy initiatives garner much public debate, the OECD study highlights different models, most notably Sweden’s voucher system.  Since 1992, Sweden — unlike Finland — has had a universal voucher system where grants follow the child and a voucher can be used to pay tuition in a private, independent, non-denominational school.  In this social democracy, all places are open to sudents on a “first come, first served” basis and private schools cannot charge more than the per pupil grant for tuition. Both The Netherlands and Chile also have universal progressive voucher systems.

Targeted school choice programs are more common in the United States. In states like Wisconsin and Ohio, school choice initiatives were tailored specifically for students from disadvantaged families. The initial Milwaukee voucher program, started in 1990, was strictly limited to serving lower income families, whereas Ohio’s state-wide educational choice scholarship program, introduced in 2006 and limited to students in “failing schools” , expanded to serve 34 school districts and 213 schools by 2008. Outside of Alberta, few Canadian school boards, except for Ontario’s largest, the Toronto District School Board and one or two others, have dared to hint at moving in this direction.

The OECD study did not, as The Globe story implies, obsess over the potential inequalities resulting from giving parents freedom of choice in education. It was identified as a possible consequence, but the report also recognized the “imperfections” associated with “a single provider system.”  The OECD actually reached the opposite conclusion. “A careful design of school choice schemes,” Musset asserted,  “can allow (education authorities/ districts) to combine parental freedom, enhanced opportunities for disadvantaged children and equity.”(p. 43)

Public discussion of school choice in Canada remains at a very primitive level. Since the mid-1990s, the Society for Quality Education has performed yeoman service championing the caise of parental choice in the face of a rather intransigent public education system.  A recent move by the York Region District School Board to eliminate the Arts@Baythorn program has backfired badly on defenders of the one-size-fits-all public education system.  It has succeeded in arousing parents seeking arts enrichment English programs in an otherwise “choice-less” school district.  http://www.yrdsb.edu.on.ca/pdfs/a/agenda/ms/sc120124/yrdsb-sc120124-p1-20.pdf

Defenders of the single provider education system are marshalling their forces with the support of the usual band of OISE education professors. A recent TVO  program The Agenda, hosted by Steve Paikin, gave Annie Kidder of People for Education so much airtime that everyone was left confused  about the real issues at stake. Her posts on P4E’s Blog reveal a particular fondness for social solidarity based upon a vague notion of “common school” experience.  http://schools-at-the-centre.ning.com/forum/topics/choice-specialty-schools-and

All is not lost. Most encouraging has been the rise of a School Choice movement centred in York Region, north of Toronto.  http://yorkregionwantschoice.org/ ” School doesn’t have to be boring,” York Region advocates say. ” If it’s the right school for the right kid, it can be a wonderful, stimulating experience. Many kids can find this social and educational success at their home school. But not all…. If you feel that the children, the rate-payers, and the communities of York Region are no less deserving of educational choice and opportunity than people in the Catholic board, the Toronto board, the Peel board, or the many others, it’s time to raise your voice. Because after April 4, these opportunities for our children could be lost forever.”

School choice is on the horizon and Canadian educational authorities, except possibly for those in Alberta and Metropolitan Toronto, are still in denial.  Why is Canada now an outlier among the leading OECD countries?  Why is school choice essentially absent from the research agenda at OISE and other faculties of education?  What is standing in the way of a wide-open public debate over the current “single provider” system and the policy option of allowing parents the freedom to choose their children’s schools?

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Kids are praying in Toronto’s public schools. It’s not a school board concern, however, because the students are not Christians. And on July 8,2011, the Toronto District School Board issued an official statement that the Muslim students attending Valley Park Middle School in North York have a “constitutional right” to pray during school hours.

Toronto’s Valley Park school has become the latest lightening rod in the long simmering public debate over the place of religion in publicly-funded state schools. The school is 80% to 90% Muslim and some 400 Islamic students have been praying on Friday afternoons for 40 minutes for the past year. It started three years ago when large numbers of Valley Park students began missing Friday afternoon classes to attend a nearby mosque. The school principal Nick Stefanoff, with the best of intentions, devised a solution: an in-school service, offered for free by a local imam and supervised by parents.

All was quiet until Hindu parents raised an objection, complaining that such services carried the potential for “inflammatory preaching.” Even though there is no evidence of such activity, the issue hit The Toronto Sun and News Talk Radio — and sparked a firestorm of controversy. http://www.torontosun.com/2011/07/04/prayers-in-school-whats-the-problem

The Canadian Hindu Advocacy group, led by Ron Bannerjee, feared the worst and charged that it opened the door to other groups demanding the same “privilege” as the Muslims. “Pretty soon,” Bannerjee stated, “we’re going to have 50 different ethnicities and religions asking for different accommodations.” National Post columnist Kelly McParland countered with an op ed defending the “entirely reasonable and workable solution” to “satisfy a few people who can’t stand the idea of Muslim kids praying in the cafeteria.” http://www.ottawacitizen.com/story_print.html?id=5062024&sponsor=

The raging public issue goes far beyond a dispute between religious faiths. A Christian god has now been essentially banned from all public schools, except for Catholic separate schools in a few provinces. Most public schools have become increasingly godless places since the late 1960s and high school officials show more tolerance for “sex, drugs, and rap music” than any form of religious faith.

A recent National Post editorial (July 7, 2011) connected the dots for us. “Enforced secularization -and the uproar caused when religion rears its controversial head -are a direct result of another problem with the public education system: absence of choice.” http://www.nationalpost.com/news/Have+faith+choice/5062048/story.html

How did public education become the modern temple of secular humanism? The Canadian courts played a critical role, supporting a “non-sectarian” interpretation of provincial public school law and regulations. With the tacit support of most politicians, the courts decided that the only “fair” option was to remove all religion from the taxpayer-funded, ‘one-size-fits-all school’ system.

Twenty years ago, Canadian courts ruled that the Lord’s Prayer could not be said in public schools because it constituted religious indoctrination, and children who refused to say it would be stigmatized. Since then, there have been continuous efforts, in the National Post’s words, ” to scrub every vestige of religion -Christmas trees, Nativity scenes, Easter celebrations -from public schools.” In once Catholic Quebec, the government has even outlawed the use of religious symbolism or stories in state-funded day cares.

For schools such as Valley Park Middle School, the banning of prayers seriously compromises the school’s ability to adapt to the circumstances and needs of the vast majority of their students. Parents there who would want their children to pray in school would have no choice but to send them to private school to regain their religious freedom. This excludes a large number of families who simply cannot afford the fees for such institutions.

The real solution to the current Prayer in School conflict is to introduce school choice, allowing parents and families to choose schools that “fit the children” rather than the other way around. Broadening the range of school choices, especially in Toronto’s multicultural communities, would ensure that schools were putting the needs of children and families first. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/toronto/school-prayer-debate-creates-unlikely-allies/article2092121/

Fears of religion in the schools are grossly exaggerated by those who have a stake in resisting school reform. Defenders of the educational status quo will eventually come to accept that the will of the public for more choice can no longer be thwarted by furious public appeals for “one system for all.” Public education based upon parental choice principles, whether through funded alternatives or tuition fee-subsidies, would allow parents to send their children to any school that meets basic educational credentials.

Letting Muslims pray in school makes good sense in Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park. Today’s school systems claim to be open, liberal, and tolerant of individual rights and cultural differences. We currently offer social justice courses in Native/Mi’Kmaq Studies and Afri-Canadian Studies, so the system can flex when the option is considered politically acceptable. So what’s the problem? Above and beyond basic curricula, schools should also be free to include other elements of their community’s choosing, including faith-based lessons and discussions that were once the hallmark of a true liberal education.

What’s the real problem with prayers in public school? How did Canada’s public schools become temples of secular humanism and purveyors of ” good enough for all”? Why did it take Canada’s newcomers to awaken us to the “godless” nature of many state-funded school institutions? Is broadening school choice in public education the ultimate answer?

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Alternative schools and programs are growing by leaps and bounds across North America, inside as well as outside of the public system. One 2003 Education Evolving study described such programs as the “quiet giant” in the public sector and since September 2009 the Toronto Board of Education has opened more alternative schools than ever before, bringing its total to over 40 different elementary and secondary schools.

Nova Scotia provides a stark contrast. Alternative-education programs here are few and far between and yet the Halifax Regional School Board is on the verge of cutting Youth Pathways and Transitions (YPT), the only Board-wide program serving harder to reach secondary school students.
Treating the YPT as a strictly “temporary transitional program” is bad enough. Presenting the issue as a simple cost-cutting measure further emphasizes how ‘out-of-sync’ the region’s largest public school system has become under the current administration.

Cancelling the YPT program has outraged the students and parents directly impacted, but they have been left twisting in the wind. The Board administration sequestered in Burnside says it will save $652,000 and remains resolute. “Kids not Cuts” may be the Nova Scotia Teacher Union’s latest media message, but where were they when YPT was slated for cancellation? Actions speak louder than those pricey ads.

Cutting alternative programs may save educational dollars short-term, but effectively excludes sizeable numbers of “at risk” students with longer-term social costs, reflected in higher crime rates, increased health care costs, and longer welfare rolls.

The three brave YPT students, Sophie McConnell, Shannon Simpson, and Emma Latta, who have spoken out are typical of thousands of students “saved” each year by alternative high school programs. It’s shameful that it was left to these Halifax students and their parents to stand-up for the hundreds of Nova Scotian students not being well-served in traditional ‘one-size-fits-all’ schools.

“Alternative education programs,” according to Education Evolving, have been “highly successful in serving a population of students not served well in traditional settings.” And that essential research finding has been echoed in many recent studies.

Since the founding of the SEED School in Toronto in the mid-1960s, alternative schools in Canada’s larger cities have proven to be hardy plants. In the United States, Minnesota serves as a prime example of their runaway success. By 2003, some 77,000 of the state’s 411,840 Grade 7-12 students attended such programs, fully one-fifth of all students.

Since the mid-1970s, American and Canadian school districts have turned to such schools and programs to close the ‘achievement gap’ and to raise graduation levels. Outside of the Maritimes, it has been part of a concerted two-pronged strategy to create new and different schools as well as to improve existing mainstream schools.

Alternative programs have also proven effective in promoting innovative teaching methods and learning activities. “Alternative program leaders,” one U.S. study noted, “ have much to teach leaders” in regular schools and counterbalance the smothering homogeneity promoted by the overzealous pursuit of standardized testing and accountability.

Since Youth Pathways and Transitions opened in 2004, it has served as a vital safe haven for junior or senior high schoolers who either skipped classes or were suspended for extended periods. To say that YPT has “saved” hundreds of students from the educational scrap heap is no exaggeration.

The Halifax Regional Board has limited the scope of YPT and refuses to accept the need for even one self-standing alternative school. Little or no effort is made to advise parents or students of its existence, unless it becomes a school of last resort. In that sense, the HRSB treats it like a first generation “drop-in” program rather than a fully-evolved innovative, cutting-edge alternative school.

Public education in Nova Scotia, even in HRM, offers a strictly limited range of school options, unlike Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, or Vancouver. In the Toronto District Board, the city’s 37 alternative programs in 2007-08 enrolled 3,583 students or less than 97 students per school. Each had its own unique character, but was specially designed to “fit the student.”

In a school system putting students first, YPT would not be on the chopping block. It would be seen as a potential model for creating uniquely different schools geared to the specialized needs of students and satisfying growing parental expectations for human scale alternatives to “big box” elementary and “airport terminal” high.

Given the proven sucess of alternative schools and programs in serving hard to reach students, why are they still vulnerable to educational cuts? Why do Canadian school districts continue to thwart their growth and expansion? Is it because alternative programs tend to foster an organizational culture more conducive to the development of self-standing alternative schools? What will it take to overcome the barriers to change, particularly in the Maritimes and much of rural Canada?

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