Saturday, September 15, 2007

Ontario's mediocre public schools

The London Free Press
By Rory Leishman
The Ontario Liberal Party proclaims in its official policy platform for 2007 that: “Education is our top priority.” More specifically, the Liberals pledge: “We will complete our drive to have 75 per cent of kids meet the provincial standard in reading, writing and math.”
Voters are entitled to regard this Liberal commitment with considerable scepticism. During the 2003 provincial election campaign, the Ontario Liberal Party likewise promised: “Our Excellence for All plan guarantees that within our first mandate, 75 per cent of our students meet or exceed the provincial standard on province-wide tests.”
What, though, do we find? At the end of the Liberals’ first mandate, the province’s Education Quality and Accountability Office reports that only 64 per cent of Grade 6 students passed the provincial standard for reading during the past two years, while in mathematics, only 59 per cent passed this year, down from 61 per cent last year.
However, rather than apologize for this lamentable failure to achieve the Liberals’ supposedly guaranteed 75-per-cent pass rate, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty emphasizes that the province’s elementary students are now achieving higher test scores in reading, writing and math than under the previous Progressive Conservative government. In response, Ontario Progressive Conservative leader John Tory points out: “The McGuinty government has been quietly lowering education standards to make the standardized test scores look better.”
Nonetheless, on one point in the educational debate, Tory and McGuinty are agreed: In Tory’s words: “Ontario’s public school system is one of the best in the world.”
This contention is altogether wrong. Ontario public schools are not even the best in Canada. Over the past 25 years, students in Ontario schools have almost always done less well on standard tests of academic achievement than students in Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec.
Why is that? Lack of funding is not the problem. Ontario spends approximately the same amount per student as Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec.
Likewise, Ontario parents cannot be faulted. They rank among the best educated in the entire country.
In one respect, the Ontario education system stands out from its counterparts in Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec: namely, in lack of competition. This difference is crucial. In a study of school choice in Canada, the Society for Quality Education notes: “The high-performing provinces – Alberta, BC, and Quebec – have the most school choice … Unless defenders of the status quo in Ontario can refute decades of test results or prove that the children in some other provinces are intrinsically more intelligent than Ontario students, we must conclude that Ontario’s public schools are not teaching students as effectively as the schools in the provinces with more school choice.”
Regardless, the McGuinty Liberals are committed to maintaining the educational status quo. They adamantly oppose any increase in school choice for Ontario parents.
In contrast, the Progressive Conservatives promise to extend public funding to faith-based independent schools. Such a half-measure is insufficient. The government should offer all parents educational vouchers equivalent to the average cost per student in the publicly funded schools.
Some critics oppose educational vouchers on the ground that they could be used to finance schools run by apologists for Islamist radicals, Tamil terrorists and other extremists. But to deal with this threat, it is not necessary to deprive all parents of the right to school choice. Rather, the government should specifically shut down all subversive, hate-mongering schools and associated houses of worship, whether publicly or privately funded.
McGuinty defames the great majority of independent schools in Ontario, by charging them with undermining the province’s “social cohesion.” And in taking this stance, he boasts: “Teachers’ organizations support us.”
That’s hardly surprising. Thanks to the existing funding formula, the province’s strike-prone teachers’ unions have such a stranglehold over the publicly funded schools that they were able to extort a hugely expensive, four-year contract out of the McGuinty Liberal government that includes wage hikes of almost 10 per cent.
Ontario parents have no reason to share the unions’ enthusiasm. As the Society for Quality Education contends, the determination of the Liberals and New Democrats to oppose any initiative to increase school choice and school competition is bound to assure the continuing inferiority of the quality of education in Ontario schools.

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