Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Semi-Private Schools

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.


  1. Your comments about fundraising are really quite interesting, it certainly is an issue that doesn't get enough attention.

    I know there are big differences is fundraising abilities amongst the elementaries where I live. Fundraising money(where I live) can't be used to pay teacher salaries, but it can be used to fund an after school foreign language class or for equipment. All one has to do is walk into some of our local elementaries to see that one has more equipment than another.

  2. Thanks for commenting, KD. (I've seen a lot of your great comments over on Chris' blog!)

    Here too, fund-raised money isn't used for absolute essentials, like teachers' salaries. But it's amazing what it can be used for. Playgrounds, for instance, and smart-boards in classrooms, visiting scientists, etc. I think it creates a two-tiered school system, which kind of goes against the principles of public education. My kids have benefited from these disparities, for sure, but I wish schools could be funded properly and fullly so that major fundraising by parents (unheard of when I went to school) was not necessary.

  3. KD's right. Whenever our school's PTA congratulates us on the money it's raised toward school improvements, I always think, Too bad if you're at a school where the parents don't have as much money to donate. If there were a rule against that kind of private funding, our school's parents could only get that nice playground equipment by advocating for more public spending on the schools -- which would then be more equitably distributed.

    That's one of the reasons I bothered writing this post, which might seem to be on a trivial issue, but is really just one more sign of the creeping privatization (and therefore inequity) of the public schools.

    We do have a district-wide foundation that parents can contribute to -- but it's competing for those same dollars that go to the individual PTAs. And seriously, why shouldn't tax money pay for the public schools? If it's all right to insist that students pay for their own books and supplies and playground equipment, how long can it be before the schools start charging tuition? What's the difference?

  4. On the other hand, if they did ban private funding, the result would probably be that *all* the kids would have crappy playgrounds and no special programs. And parents with money would just be more likely to put their kids in private schools.

    I wonder how many of the disparities among our public schools are knowingly tolerated as a kind of bribe to keep wealthy parents in the public system.

  5. I went to a fairly spartan private school. When my oldest first started school I honestly didn't pay very much attention to things like computers or playground equipment. I never would have dreamed that within an individual school district, one school could have more computers strictly based on the ability of the PTO to fundraise.

    It would be nice to see a public disclosure of monies raised by the PTOs, how many computers each school has etc. I'm sure that school officials don't want to have the discussion.

    I think the fundraising inequities are less at th junior high level in our district. They have a magazine sale...which is heavily pushed by administrators at the school.

  6. Chris, your comments are bang on. Excessive fundraising allows governments—and parents—to ignore the fundamental problem, which is the chronic underfunding of education. Some people have suggested that there should be a central fund, such as the one you describe in your district, from which donated money could be distributed to schools in an equitable manner. If there has to be parent fundraising, I would prefer it be conducted this way, but as someone on Twitter pointed out, a central "fund" already exists: it's called tax dollars! The problem, in Canada at least, is that taxation levels for the wealthiest segments of the population have been reduced over the years, so that governments no longer feel they can afford to fully fund education. But of course they can. They could—gasp!—raise taxes on the wealthy and on corporations, or they could prioritize better. We used to fund education fully; why can't we do it now?

    I also agree that the lax rules governing parent fundraising (and the resulting disparities between schools) function as a kind of bribe to keep the kids of the wealthy in the system. In our neighbourhood, the schools compete quite explicitly with private schools. We even have "houses" in our local public school!

  7. KD — In our school, the parent organization does disclose publicly how much money they have raised in a given year, and what it has been spent on. They also occasionally send out surveys to parents soliciting their preferences re: how the money is spent. The parent association spends money on things like smart boards, scientists and artists who come to the school, books for classroom libraries, air conditioning for top floor rooms, special theatrical or musical performances, etc. All of these "enrichments" are worthwhile (apart from smart boards, in my humble opinion), but that doesn't change the fact that parents shouldn't have to fund-raise for them. They should be part of the system for all kids, or not.

    By the way, I agree that many of the "extras" the parents fund-raise for are not all that important. After all, the one thing parent money can't buy is a child-friendly environment!

  8. Schools are funded perfectly fine--it's just that most of the money goes to salaries and benefits. (Teachers got about a 25% raise since McGuinty came to power.) See www.SunsineOnSchools.ca Better that parents got a voucher to use at whatever school they choose.

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