Taking Ontario students to the "head of the class"?
In January, Ontario Education Minister, John Snobelen, introduced the Fewer School Boards Act, an initiative to change the way education is financed and governed in this province. Reinforcing his promise to take Ontario students to the "head of the cla ss", Snobelen removed education funding from the municipal tax base and called for the amalgamation of Ontario's 129 school boards to a mere 66. In theory, this will result in a less bureaucratic and more uniformly funded education system. But will it wor k in practice? While Snobelen claims to be protecting the interests of Ontario students, I am not entirely convinced.
In his January 13 announcement, Snobelen emphasized the fact that, "These are not revolutionary ideas. Ontarians have watched as, one by one, other jurisdictions ... have reformed their education systems to manage the costs of education by reducing dup lication and waste, and streamlining administration and bureaucracy. ... Ontario will no longer sit on the sidelines as others move ahead."
However, with the largest, most widespread, and most diverse student population in the country, Ontario's education system faces many challenges not seen in the other Canadian provinces. While amalgamation may have worked elsewhere, it may not be the b est thing for Ontario.
As for the changes to funding, I agree that there is a need for equality in the system. Students should not be disadvantaged by where they live or by the spending practices of their governing school board. Funding education from provincial coffers impl ies that education will be more uniformly funded, eliminating the present so-called "have" and "have-not" school boards. However, there is concern that the government may decrease the overall level of funding across the province. Does equality mean raisin g the "have nots" to the level of the "haves" or bringing the "haves" down to the level of the "have nots"? Furthermore, while we know that as of 1998, education will be financed almost entirely from provincial grants, the government has not given any ind ication as to how these grants will be allocated to the new district boards. In his announcement, Snobelen emphasized the need to finance the added heating and transportation costs faced by northern schools, but, other than the verbal assurance of a polit ician, we have no concrete evidence that the new funding formula will truly meet all our needs.
As a student in the soon-to-disappear Espanola Board of Education, I would like to focus on the effects the Fewer School Boards Act might have on students in my own community. Under the Act, a mere six "district boards" will cover the vast geographical expanse of northern Ontario. Our own Espanola Board of Education will be forced to amalgamate with the neighbouring Manitoulin and Sudbury boards. While, comparatively speaking, this is one of the smaller northern Ontario "district boards", this does not necessarily work to our advantage.
Both our board and Manitoulin are relatively rural in nature, with several fairly small schools and a total student population of approximately 4000. Sudbury, by comparison, is largely urbanized with a student population of approximately 18,000, more t han four times that of Espanola and Manitoulin combined.
Herein lies the problem. When the provincial grants are allocated to the Sudbury - Espanola - Manitoulin board, will they recognize the needs of students outside the Sudbury area? Will all students be guaranteed equal funding or will the new board be a ble to allocate funds as it sees fit? If this were the case, it would be reasonable to assume that most of the funds would remain in the Sudbury area, where more than 80% of the new board's student population will lie. So, where does this leave Espanola a rea students? Will our students continue to get the resources and services they need, or will our schools be forced to sacrifice some of these in the name of cost-cutting? For instance, at the moment Espanola High School students enjoy a variety of extra- curricular activities. Will we see these fall by the wayside in order to fully finance classroom education?
The issue of equal funding is a particularly serious one, especially when you consider what the Fewer School Boards Act does to local representation. The Act calls for a province-wide reduction in the number of trustees. So, like all the new district b oards, the Sudbury - Espanola - Manitoulin board will be forced to conduct its affairs with somewhere between five and twelve trustees. With more than 80% of its student population lying in Sudbury, it would seem reasonable to assume that most of this "lo cal representation" will come from the Sudbury area. How much of a voice will we have in the affairs of this new district board? Under such conditions, will the needs of our students continue to be met?
Some people, Minister Snobelen included, would probably argue that the need for local representation would be met through School Advisory Councils (S.A.C's). In some ways, they might add, S.A.C.'s will be even more effective than local trustees because , rather than representing the needs of all 2000 Espanola-area students, S.A.C.'s represent the needs of the students of a specific school. While this all sounds good in theory, I am not entirely sure that this is the case. There are far more schools in S udbury than in Espanola, and consequently, far more S.A.C.'s out there trying to protect the rights of Sudbury students. No matter how dedicated, determined and vocal our Espanola S.A.C.'s are, under such conditions there is still no guarantee that they w ill be able to effectively represent our local needs.
In a recently announced amendment to the Fewer School Boards Act, Minister Snobelen added another six school boards to Northern Ontario, two of which were English public school boards. This split two of the "super" boards in the north-west, but he did not touch any of the problematic boards in the east. Still, we can't expect perfection ... at least they are doing something to improve matters. I suppose the proof will be in the pudding, as they say. If this works for the betterment of education, the n all the power to them. But I can't help but think that this is just an attempt to grab money. I could be wrong, but, despite the government's claims, there is very little precedent to these types of changes. It's been done elsewhere, but not on nearly such a large and complex scale as Ontario. The only probable example I can think of is the UK, who reformed their education system in a similar manner about seven years ago. Little, if any, improvement was seen there, so I can't help but worry about th e future of education in Ontario. But, we shall have to wait and see what happens.
In conclusion, despite all the rhetoric, I cannot feel confident that Minister Snobelen's proposed changes will fully meet the needs of students and take them to the "Head of the Class". While there is a definite need for change in the system, changes cannot be made that do not fully recognize all the needs of Ontario's diverse and widespread student population. Local representation and equal and adequate funding are required in order to preserve our students' rights to a quality education. Snobelen's proposal leaves us with more uncertainty than ever about the future of Ontario's education system.