Since its release in late January, Ontarians have been debating crucial questions about the Royal Commission's final report, For the Love of Learning. Is it a progressive document? Will its recommendations benefit working class children in the province? What can be said about a report hailed by both the right and the left?
Our preliminary reading of the nearly 600 page report makes one thing clear. While much of the text sounds progressive, the recommendations definitely fall into another category. As one leading trade union researcher claimed, "while the Left got the commentary, the Right got the recommendations which will be acted upon."
In this issue of People's Voice, we would like to initiate a discussion on the future of public education in Ontario. We encourage readers to follow each month as we analyze the specific recommendations of the Royal Commission, and to send in your comments and articles.
We would generally characterize the royal commission report as a skilfully crafted political document, aimed at satisfying many critics of the education system. It is the culmination of two years of consultations with key individuals and organizations who have a stake in restructuring education in our province.
No doubt the provincial NDP pins its re-election hopes on implementing key proposals from the report. When was the last time a royal commission was followed by legislation within weeks of its release? Education Minister Dave Cooke and Premier Bob Rae have been making weekly announcements of sweeping changes in the education system, without asking for feedback on the specific recommendations.
For the Love of Learning should be analyzed in the context of global pressures to reduce spending on social programs. Public education in Canada is only one of the cornerstones being attacked in recent years. Other social programs such as health care, pensions, Unemployment Insurance are also falling victim to the "deficit hysteria."
While it is too early to predict the royal commission's full long term impact, we have some general observations.
There are some aspects of the report which we can support. The obvious one is providing Early Childhood Education to all children from 3 to 5 years of age. While this ECE is intended to replace existing junior and senior kindergarten programs, the commission does not provide any added resources, or comment on where the money should come from.
We also welcome the sections which stress the need to increase student participation in decision making, and the need to drop the "learning disabled" designations placed on students. The plans to increase anti-racist initiatives and the acknowledgement that the system is not meeting the needs of students from the Black community are also welcome; however, they are quite general and vague.
The move towards increased teacher training by expanding the degree program from one year to two, is likely to receive widespread support. What is necessary is to guarantee that the actual content of the program is valuable and not seen as an extra year of "free labour" for school boards accepting placement teachers.
The report includes a number of recommendations which are more controversial, even potentially damaging.
There is a dangerous move towards centralization in a number of areas. It is proposed that curriculum development be taken over once again by the Ministry of Education. In fact, the Minister has already announced that this will be completed by 1996, and that there will be a common report card for all students in the province as well as standardized testing at various grades. This is the same ministry which has proven incapable of delivering practical curriculum in the recent past.
In respect to student evaluation, the report acknowledges that the best assessment of students progress comes from the classroom teacher who sees the student perform in a variety of situations over a period of time. However, the report recommends U.S.-style "large scale" testing be done, apparently because this is what the Chamber of Commerce urged.
A number of recommendations dealing with the funding of education should be of tremendous concern, especially to educators in the Metro Toronto area. The report proposes that tax revenue be pooled centrally and distributed by the province. It advocates the collection of commercial and industrial taxes from all communities in Ontario, and their redistribution across the province to balance funding in poor boards.
On the surface, many critics note that this appears more equitable. But the Fair Tax Commission studied this proposal and commented that it would move between $400-600 million out of the Metro area. This would likely mean the end of most of our English as a Second Language (ESL) programs. We suggest that it is the responsibility of the province to remove education financing from the property tax, and move towards a fair system of income tax reform which would force the corporations to pay their share.
The report notes the negative impact streaming has had upon working class students, but does not recommend that destreaming continue past grade nine. Despite pointing to the advantages which some students receive due to their class and ethnic backgrounds, the commission continues to recommend the establishment of "gifted" programs in each school.
One crucial recommendation addresses the role parents will have in the schools of tomorrow. While the text supports the importance of more community and parental involvement school decision-making, the recommendations propose the creation of Parent Councils, made up of "parents, students, teachers and representatives of: local religious and ethnic communities; service providers; municipal government; service clubs and business sectors." There is no mention of a role for the labour movement. Since these councils are to be created by the principals, it appears obvious that the business community will prevail in its composition.
A more effective model of parent involvement would have been the successful work of the School Community Relations Officers at the Toronto Board of Education in the early 80's, which mobilized broad communities to demand a more equitable system.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of For the Love of Learning is its failure to mention growing corporate involvement in the running of our schools. It fails to state clearly that quality public education - not privatization - is the answer to our problems. Nor is it critical of the push by large corporations and their lobby groups to use our schools as marketplaces.
There is no mention of the harm which private educational corporations will cause if they are allowed to direct the system. There is not a single recommendation for guidelines which could be followed before schools and businesses enter into "partnerships."
Finally, given the speed with which the Minister appears to be legislating change, it is worth our while to suggest the following preconditions on any further changes.
No further restructuring in the education system should occur without progressive tax reform based on ability to pay. The roles of the federations and unions should not be weakened in the "schools of the future" which the commission envisions. There should be no forced amalgamation of school boards across the province; both this commission and the Fair Tax Commission saw little savings involved in these amalgamations. Finally, since school trustees are the democratic expression of accountability at the local level, there must be no reduction of their role in the education system.
The People's Voice is published monthly by New Labour Press.
Editor: Kimball Cariou
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