Is Anyone Sending Their Kids To That Nice School Down The Street?

Special enrollment schools and programs are no longer in vogue as school boards looks to push a more inclusive, equity based agenda. Is it only a matter time before the  catholic separate school system is under review as well. 

Here is my original column on this issue - still resonates.  

 Is anyone sending their kids to that nice school down the street?'

The intention of the Toronto District School Board to proceed with an Africentric alternative school in 2009 has led me to question Ontario's entire education system.

I'm sad to say that I believe through trying to offer choice to everyone we are killing the very nature of public education.

Whether you agree or disagree with an Africentric school -- which is being created as a way to tackle high dropout rates among black youth -- really isn't at issue anymore. That debate has been settled. Everyone else seems to be able to make a case for "their school," so why not an Africentric school?

Pretty much all jurisdictions offer public schools, Catholic schools, French-only schools and French-immersion schools.

Maybe Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory was right when he thought the public should extend funding to all types of schools in the name of fairness. Of course, we all know how he fared in last October's provincial election.

Perhaps if he proposed the idea of funding one fully inclusive public school system the result may have been different.

I believe there is a silent majority out there who would support this plan, but like any major public policy initiative it is faced with many challenges.

First, there are groups who claim they are economically disadvantaged and need schools to address this issue. But the public system already does.

The money for education is evenly distributed at the provincial level, so no matter where your children go to school, they are receiving roughly the same per-student funding.

That's not the case in that country we are constantly comparing ourselves to -- the United States. Most states fund their schools entirely through property taxes. So if you live in a rich area, your kids will attend a well-funded school, whereas a depressed area usually produces a poorly funded one. This results in much more inequity than in our subsidized provincial system, but it still doesn't stop people from making an incorrect comparison.

Of course, even in a universal public system there will always be some inequities, but at some point, all the subsidies and concessions in the world won't help any group that doesn't take some responsibility for their own situation.

In creating a universal public education system the concerns from taxpayers at the other end of the socio-economic spectrum will have to be addressed as well, since for the most part they are the ones paying for it.

Fortunately, the system already allows the well-healed to use their economic advantage by choosing the neighbourhood where they want to raise their kids. The axiom of better neighbourhood-better school still holds true, so the affluent can still rightfully believe that they are getting a fair shake in a subsidized system.

Of course, no matter what your tax bracket the system currently allows for parents to do that one simple thing to make sure their child's school is a better place -- any parent can choose to roll up their sleeves and get involved.

However, I don't believe economic disparity is the major challenge to our public system. It is people's desire for choice. Everybody today wants to be different and they want schools to reflect their sense of individuality. This behaviour is having a detrimental effect not only on public education, but our communities as well.

I come to this conclusion through my own personal experience this past summer.

We just moved to a great neighbourhood, with a nice school within a short walking distance.

There are plenty of fine young families in the area and it was very nice to meet them as we settled into our surroundings. Unfortunately, through discussions it became apparent that nobody was sending their child to that nice school just down the street.

Some were busing their kids to the French-immersion school, some were being bused to one of the Christian schools, and others were going to the Catholic school, while others were deciding whether to bus their kids to the French-only school or drive them to one of the host of private options offered.

It left me wondering, is anyone sending their kids to that nice school down the street?

Now I'm no city planner or environmentalist, but wasn't the idea to build schools in neighbourhoods where kids can easily walk to them and people can have a place of common connection within their community? Now we drive or have someone else drive our kids all over the place in order to have choice.

Where is the sense of community -- at the gas station? It seems odd to me that many Canadians have a sense of pride when it comes to the concept of universal health care, but totally abandon that noble notion when it comes to having their children educated with the masses.

I'm not going to suggest that we should be taking away people's choice, but maybe it's time we looked at offering that choice within the same school.

Under this system we can regain our sense of community by having our children learn about each other in a diverse, inclusive environment.

There will always be private schools that by their very nature segregate, but we don't need a publicly funded school system that does the same.

Hopefully, current attitudes will change as parents begin to question the value of an educational experience where everyone at the school they send their son or daughter is the exact same as their son or daughter.

Gregory Cawsey is a member of the Guelph Mercury Community Editorial Board.