New report highlights gaps between province’s poorest and most affluent schools
Equity has become a buzz word in education, with Ontario boards championing equal access to learning and opportunities for all students.
But in reality, major gaps between kids from the most affluent neighbourhoods and those in high-needs communities are becoming entrenched, according to the latest annual report from People for Education.
Although the gulf is widening, provincial grants dedicated to levelling the playing field are not keeping up, adds the advocacy and research group, which surveyed 1,100 schools in the province and released its 20th annual report Monday.
“Getting public education to do what it’s supposed to do and overcome intergenerational cycles of poverty is not doing as well as it should,” executive director Annie Kidder said in an interview.
“There’s so much evidence to say if you provide targetted support — everything from smaller class sizes to guidance counsellors to breakfast programs — the kids that are less likely to do well, will do better.”
One of the biggest barriers to equity is fundraising, with some schools raising up to $200,000 a year to cover costs of instruments, playground equipment or special programs ranging from attending artistic performances to bringing in Scientists in School. Other schools raise nothing.
Such fundraising “is deeply entrenched,” and the disparities between schools appears to be widening, says the report.
Despite guidelines that such funds should not be used for education, 48 per cent of elementary schools reported fundraising for learning resources such as computers or other classroom equipment in 2017. The lowest 10 per cent of fundraising schools at the elementary level raised only $1 for every $49 raised by the top 10 per cent.
The top 5 per cent of fundraising high schools raise as much as the bottom 83 per cent put together.
Two decades ago, the province introduced the Learning Opportunities Grant to target students whose socio-economic status puts them most at risk by providing things such as breakfast and parenting programs, extra learning support and recreational opportunities.
But the report notes that over the past 20 years that demographic portion has dropped from 82 per cent of the entire grant to 47 per cent as other purposes such as boosting test scores began to dilute the original intent.
In 2016-17, it totalled $353 million, which is still below the target of $400 million recommended in 1997 by the panel that designed the grant, according to the report.
Kidder notes that although the province recently added $200 million to the grant, the current demographic amount of $359 million, has grown at well behind the rate of inflation.
“The initial intention of the grant has been lost, and it was very, very important,” Kidder said.
That’s echoed by Sean Meagher, executive director of the policy research group Social Planning Toronto, who stressed that research has shown those kinds of investments in children pay off.
“Those are incredibly well-spent dollars,” he said. “Investments in low-income communities in providing a head start for those kids and providing enrichment to compensate for some of the challenges, that pays off.”
People for Education wants the government to divide the existing Learning Opportunities grant into two distinct parts: one aimed at student success and the other specifically designated for resources and programs that mitigate socio-economic differences for the most vulnerable children.
The equity issue is also apparent in many of the other measures included in the report including the decline in key support personnel and specialist teachers, which is particularly pronounced in rural schools.
At a time of rising mental health problems among children and youth, half of secondary schools and 61 per cent of elementary schools said they don’t have sufficient access to a psychologist to support students.
Teacher-librarians, music and arts teachers and phys ed specialists are also increasingly scarce. This is where fundraising is creating a two-tier system for schools who can afford to raise money from the community so kids can access arts and recreation.
But the survey also included some positive news in the growth of Indigenous education for all students through new courses and programs, guest speakers from aboriginal communities, professional development for teachers and partnership with Indigenous communities.
This year 66 per cent of elementary schools and 80 per cent of high schools provided some form of Indigenous education. That’s up from 49 per cent of grade schools in 2013 and 61 per cent of secondary schools.
Kidder calls it “a shining example” of how “policy, a little bit of funding and a lot of direction” can make a difference.