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A recent CBC News Nova Scotia investigation into school fundraising stirred up a little controversy.  The CBC story, which aired on May 16, 2018, focused on inequities in school fundraising, highlighting some rather predictable findings. One South End Halifax elementary school in an affluent residential district raised $70,000 per year in 2016 and 2017, while another in a lower income North End area averaged $15,000 a year. A retired Halifax principal featured prominently in the story saying she found it “disturbing” that some schools can raise so much more than others.

The decision to fixate on parent fundraising was peculiar, when more telling data is readily available bearing more directly on educational inequities in the classroom.  It also begged the question — does parent fundraising really matter or is it just an issue for those who exhibit an education system version of the ‘tall poppy syndrome.’

Schools in wealthier neighbourhoods, the CBC story line ran, secured further advantages raising tens of thousands of dollars for those ‘extras’, such as smart boards, team jerseys, and choir risers. Fundraising capacity, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) researcher Erika Shaker claimed on a subsequent Maritime Connections phone-in show, was directly related to “the economic status of the community” and that gives “those kids an unfair advantage.”

While the seven-school sample showed quite a discrepancy, school fundraising tends to go to extras and frills that do not really make a fundamental difference in teaching and learning. Not only that, but the proposed solutions completely missed the mark.

The former chair of the Halifax Regional School Board, Gin Yee, responded to the CBC revelations in a sound, sensible and informed fashion. Some schools will always be better at fundraising, he pointed out, and, besides, the monies raised not only go to extras rather than essentials, but matter far less than the quality of teaching, class sizes, and in-class supports.

Tampering with fundraising will do little to address the fundamental inequities demonstrated on recent provincial student assessments. The published School Community Reports for 2015-16 support Yee’s contentions.

The top fundraising schools, Sir Charles Tupper and LeMarchant-St. Thomas, finished first or second among the seven sample schools on Grade 3 and 6 reading and Grade 4 and 6 mathematics, with between 86 and 98 per cent of their students meeting the provincial standards. In the case of the identified disadvantaged school, Joseph Howe Elementary, student results were terribly alarming, ranging from 18 per cent to 45 per cent meeting standards.

Leaving aside these three schools, the fundraising totals for St. Catherine’s Elementary, Westmount Elementary, East St. Margaret’s Consolidated, and Dutch Settlement do not even support the overall argument. Two of the lower fundraising schools produce student results at or above the provincial standard, contrary to the story line.

“Pooling the funds” raised and “sharing them collectively,” suggested in the CBC story, is a bad idea, and it went over with CBC listeners like a lead balloon, judging from the 137 comments generated by the accompanying news report.

While the CBC journalists floated it as a serious proposition, Shaker told the radio audience that she favours the “pooling of resources” through redistributive taxation rather than through the sharing of parent fundraising proceeds.  “I’m a big fan of pooling our collective resources to ensure that all kids and schools have access to the resources they need … but really the most effective way is to do it at the provincial scale … we even have a mechanism in place: it’s taxation.”

Parent engagement is critical to student success in every school and any proposal to “cap fundraising” or slap down parent initiatives would prove to be detrimental.  Sharing the proceeds raised at one so-called “advantaged school” with a “disadvantaged school” only provides a temporary fix and may actually lead to long-term dependency on revenue sharing.

Reallocating funds raised at Sir Charles Tupper or LeMarchant- St. Thomas, the two top fundraisers, also ignores the stark reality that those schools compete with pricey private independent schools to retain students. Clamping down on those parents and denying their students those extras may well drive them right out of the public school system.

The real solution to addressing the inequities lies elsewhere. Differential bloc funding of schools has been telegraphed by the new Deputy Education Minister Cathy Montreuil and, more recently, by Minister Zach Churchill.

If and when Minister Churchill announces the change on school funding formula, he would be wise to leave parent fundraising alone and to focus on what really matters – supporting teachers and greatly enhancing learning supports, particularly in disadvantaged school communities.

The Halifax Regional School Board’s “priority schools” funding supports initiative pointed us in a more productive direction. Designating struggling schools as “education reconstruction zones’ would go one step further, focusing educational policy and resources on “turnaround projects.” It would open the door to intensive reading and math supports, wraparound student support services, and our own provincial version of the highly successful “Pathways to Education” after-school tutoring and homework program.

Engaging in empty ideological disputes over tangential issues such as parent fundraising should not be distracting us from getting to the root of the problem. No one, it seems, is now prepared to publicly defend sharing school fundraising proceeds.

What does fusing over school fundraising have to do with addressing educational inequities? Should we be concerned about school fundraising totals or addressing more fundamental problems?  Why did the proposal to adopt school-based budgeting attract so little attention in the ensuing public discussion? What’s standing in the way of school districts zeroing-in on “education reconstruction zones” with targeted “turnaround” programs? 

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