|The Erosion of Public Schools in Ontario
The Canada eZine - Education
The Boiled Frog of Public Education in Ontario
By Nicole Alkins
In finishing up the session for this academic year, I was recently re-acquainted with the boiled frog theory. This theory states that when a frog is dropped in boiling water it immediately jumps out because it recognizes that the water is dangerously hot. However, if the frog is placed in a pan of cool water that is gradually heated to the same boiling point, it will not recognize the dangerous change in temperature because the frog has had time to adapt to and accept the change. As you may have guessed, in this latter scenario the frog eventually boils to death.
Just as the frog dies in the end due to its inability to recognize over time what it would otherwise immediately recognize as dangerous, a similar situation is occurring in Ontario’s public education system.
When the Harris government launched an attack on public education in the mid-1990’s, everyone was aware of the change in direction to education policy. The media covered the issue on a regular basis, the teachers went on strike to protest the changes and education activists were born out of the blatant and detrimental actions of the Conservative government.
There was good reason for this public outcry against the changes to Ontario’s education policy. Over the span of three years, the landscape of public education was changed dramatically by a man named John Snobelen.
The Minister of Education and Training in the Harris government continues to be well-remembered after his term in office due to what has come to be known as ‘The Caterpillar Speech’. It was during this speech in 1995 that Snobelen outlined his plan to initiate a ‘useful crisis’ in the education system by bankrupting it in order to open the doors for the privatization of the sector (Cohen: 148).
Shortly thereafter, in 1997, Snobelen introduced Bill 160 The Education Quality Improvement Act. Bill 160 gave the province control of municipal education taxes, introduced standardized testing, cut teaching preparation time, allowed the government to determine class sizes and granted early retirement initiatives to older, more experienced teachers.
The final legacy of Snobelen’s administration was the funding formula. Introduced in 1998, the funding formula was designed to equalize education spending throughout Ontario. As Dandy (2002) points out, prior to that time education was funded by municipal taxes, which meant that communities that had a rich tax base could provide programs that responded to local needs, whereas communities that were not fortunate enough to have this same tax base relied on government grants. Although this method of funding was not without flaws, the parts of the province that had the highest population were essentially self-sufficient in regards to education funding, leaving only the rural and suburban areas in need of government support.
The magnitude of changes, and the immediate and drastic effect they had on students and their families, was recognized and fought by Ontarians, although it was not until 2003 that the public decided to elect a government that promised a more balanced approach to education issues and other matters of importance.
When Dalton McGuinty became Premier in 2003, the Liberals had run on an education platform that included a pledge to fix the funding formula in order to address the particular needs of urban and rural schools and provide $177 million to end the increasing incidence of rural school closures. Five years later, the percentage of elementary schools with a teacher-librarian has plummeted from 80% in 1997/98 to 58% in 2006/07 (People for Education), school closures abound, funding is not reaching the students who need it most and ESL programs in urban elementary schools have decreased 15% since 1997/98, despite a 13.5% increase in immigration over the same time period (according to People for Education Stats).
[EDITOR'S NOTE: The erosion of librarians in public and private schools is a widespread phenomenon. In this era of the internet having a school librarian is considered unnecessary by many school boards and when the librarians retire school boards opt to simply not replace them. The schools become reliant on student/parent volunteers to pick up the slack in the library. We are also seeing increased funding for computers, and scant funding for new books.]
Public education in Ontario is being eroded. Like the process that occurs in nature, the system is being slowly washed away, losing a little bit here and little bit there, without the general public taking much notice – now that the crisis is perceived to be over. Combined with increasing user fees, fewer teachers in the classrooms, less prep time for teachers, more part-time teachers, less resources and extra-curricular activities for students, schools functioning without librarians and vice-principals, standardized testing and provincial funding according to a formula that demands cuts and closures every year, it is not hard to understand why private school enrolment is on the rise. Indeed, that was Snobelen’s goal in 1995.
None of the three main political parties currently offer real solutions to the very real problems in Ontario’s public education system because voters aren’t demanding them. Like the frog, we seem to be able to adapt and accept the destruction of an institution that used to define Canada and make Canadians proud, as long as it is done gradually and without too much fanfare. If only the Liberals could slap us in the face with the truth behind their promises of increased funding and improvement, then we would be able to recognize the harm their administration is causing to the system and, most importantly, the students.
CBC News. “Ontario Votes 2003”.
Dandy, Cathy. “Education funding crisis in Ontario”. Toronto Parent Network. June 2002.
People for Education. “Reports by Topic”.