A long time ago—in another life, it seems—my husband and I found ourselves looking to buy a house in the greater Boston area. During this ultimately fruitless period of house-hunting, our real estate agent accompanied us on numerous expeditions to quaint urban neighbourhoods and not-so-quaint neighbouring suburbs. In her attempt to sell us on a particular house, the agent would invariably say something like, "The local school is wonderful—very high test scores." We were surprised by this, because we were quite obviously childless, and had never expressed the slightest interest in children or schools. We informed our agent that proximity to schools, good or bad, did not matter to us, that we were more concerned with proximity to decent restaurants and bookstores. She ignored us and continued to rattle off test scores of the schools close to the houses we viewed. It must be an American thing, we figured, something to do with the inequitable way schools are funded in the US. We were pretty certain school test scores were not of equal concern to house-hunters in Canada.
It took us many years—during which we became parents to twins, moved in a panic back to Canada, and slowly realized that babies grow up to be kids who eventually attend school—to realize how wrong we were.
Recently, the Toronto Star published the results of an investigation into fundraising disparities among public schools in certain boards within the province of Ontario. I was not surprised that our neighbourhood junior school was one of the highest-ranked schools in Toronto in terms of money raised through fundraising. I was, however, somewhat taken aback to discover that during the year being studied (2008-2009), our school raised—through a combination of school and parent fundraising—$252,072 more than the elementary school at the bottom of the Toronto School Board list. (See full report here.) What is a person who believes in public education to make of such an obscene discrepancy? How is it even possible?
Two explanations spring to mind: first, the government of Ontario no longer adequately funds public education, and has not done so since the Harris years, despite promises by the governing liberals to amend the flawed funding formula introduced by the conservatives; second, perhaps as a result of its decision to continue underfunding education, the government has chosen not to set limits on fundraising by, for instance, restricting the uses to which parent-raised money can be put. In my daughters' school, some of the money raised by the parent association goes to programs such as "Scientists in the School" and "Learning Through the Arts''—curriculum-related programs whose presence in a school should not be tied to the availability of parent-generated funds.
But the fundraising issue is also part of a larger picture of education in Ontario (and elsewhere in North America) that has emerged in the last few decades. Specifically, it is an integral part of a cycle of inequity in which (as my Boston real estate agent understood) standardized tests scores also figure prominently. Before the advent of standardized tests such as EQAO in Ontario, inequality among schools—including differences in parental involvement and fundraising—no doubt existed, but standardized testing has amplified existing differences through its direct effect on real estate values. A high-scoring school drives up surrounding property values, which leads to parents-of-means moving into the neighbourhood, contributing time, energy and money to the school, which in turn leads to even higher test scores . . . and on and on the cycle goes.
The result is the creation of a tripartite system of schooling in Ontario, consisting of public, private, and what people in my neighbourhood jokingly refer to as "semi-private" schools. In a semi-private school, private money, to the tune of more than a million dollars for some high schools in the province, is funnelled into the public school, making up for any deficiencies caused by inadequate government funding. Well-heeled parents who contribute the money are thrilled to save the $28,000 in private school fees. Indeed, for these parents it's a fantastic deal. For the parents of students attending the province's truly public schools, not so much.