The damage done: Neoliberalism’s broken record on education

A single pair of scissors, open and pointed downwards

Divisive rhetoric dressed up with a teeth-bearing grin. Photo-op attempts to praise workers (“folks”) while dismissing and delegitimizing the elected bodies that speak on their behalf. A whipped-up climate of general distrust in schools and educators, complete with a “snitch line”, while pledging respect for taxpayers and parents.

I may be betraying my age, but the past six months in Ontario have felt an awful lot like déjà vu.

This is not new. Nor innovative. Nor creative. It’s the same old, tired tune we witnessed in the mid-90s under the Mike Harris government. Remember that? The simplistic “common sense” branding; the anti-union attacks; the cuts to social spending; the poor-bashing; the forced amalgamation of school boards; the uploading of control coupled with the downloading of responsibilityminus sufficient resources.

It was a cold, cruel time to be in Ontario. Some paid with their health; others, like Kimberly Rogers, paid with their lives.  

But despite its sorry track record, the neoliberal tango continues. In Alberta, United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney is hauling out the language of school choice, proclaiming the real child care experts to be “mom and dad”not teachers or these high-falutin researchers.

He’s also, seemingly in a sort of homage to Doug Ford’s targeting of Ontario’s 2015 Health and Phys Ed curriculum for straying too far from 1998 in the sex ed department, calling for a rollback of Alberta’s long-awaited and much-needed curriculum review. The UCP is in favour of requiring schools to notify parents if their child joins a Gay Straight Alliance, potentially outing kids before they’re ready, and possibly putting their safety at risk. As pointed out in Ontario, rollbacks of this kind, including cancelling writing sessions for TRC curriculum revisions, American Sign Language, and Indigenous languages in kindergarten, can also make it more difficult for schools and education workers to provide vital and relevant support to the kids in their care, and respond to their range of educational and social needs.

Across the country, governments of all stripes have embraced standardized testing (Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia) as a proxy for ensuring kids’ and schools’ educational needs are met, in spite of profound critiques of this kind of assessment. The use of test scores to “rank” schools, or to separate “good” schools from “bad” schools only formalizes a model that sees schools competing for students and the funding they represent. This becomes even more significant when the loss of a handful of students can mean one less teacher, or only a part-time school librarian (or, on a larger scale, a school closure), which can impact the entire community. It also reinforces the flawed and tired narrative that not all kids can be well-served by public schools, and helps set up the argument in favour of making other options available to capture market share and let parents “shop around”.

BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec (and to a limited degree Nova Scotia) provide public funding for private schools. But there are other methods of internalizing elements of privatization within the public education system. Charter schools are periodically floated as an option (for example, in Manitoba and Nova Scotia) to increase parental “choice” rather than focusing on, say, adequate funding and meeting the needs of all kids within a public education system predicated on universal, rather than selected, access. Alberta is currently the only province in Canada with charter schools – dating back to 1994, the same year they were introduced in the U.S.—which replicate the private education system complete with exclusivity, and a long application process concluding with acceptance for lucky students…except with public money. While the number of charter schools in Alberta has been limited (though not the number of campuses these schools can open), the UCP has announced their intention to remove the cap.

Others have pointed out that magnet schools or boutique programs (which provide “choice” and “specialization” to students and their families), are merely another method of internalizing a private model within the public system. Parents in Quebec have been vocal about how this practice contributes to socioeconomic segregation within and between schools although public schools cannot legally refuse students, there are certainly socioeconomic-based self-selection processes at play.

More pervasive are vouchersor at least versions of education funding designed to introduce and normalize vouchers, which were originally designed to help white parents circumvent school integration, and were particularly popular in states like Virginia and North Carolina. The state gave white parents tuition grants (vouchers) to send their children to private schools (“segregation academies”), while withholding funding or even closing public schools that integrated black and white students.  

Given their history, it’s deeply ironic to see “choice” advocates promote vouchers as a method of boosting equity and educational opportunities to students from traditionally marginalized groups. But it’s an argument with an audience. There is no question that public schools, like society, have replicated and reinforced inequities that exist all around usas part of our colonialist history through residential schools, and on an ongoing basis with students from marginalized communities, particularly as funding grows increasingly inadequate. Governments intent on introducing an element of privatization into the systemwhile reducing public expenditurescould easily use this to their advantage (depending on the community in question, of course). Give parentsthe real expertsthe per-pupil money as a sort of grant or “scholarship” and let them decide how best to spend it for their kids.

Ontario already had a short-lived private voucher experiment, funded by the W. Garfield Weston Foundation. From 2003-2012 the Fraser Institute administered the Children First School Choice Trust, offering “tuition grants” to a maximum of $4,000 for low-income students from JK to grade 8. According to the website, to qualify, household income “must not exceed amounts equal to twice the poverty line as defined by the [Fraser Institute’s] Basic Needs Index.” Given that the voucher is significantly less than private school tuition, ‘some parents have come up with “really creative solutions” to pay for the portion of tuition not covered by the grant…like working as a volunteer in the school to pay off the remainder of the tuition. Ain’t ingenuity grand?

Recently the Ford government in Ontario has used a version of school vouchers to change the way in which autism services are funded and provided. But their model betrayed a lack of understanding…if not a lack of caring. The flat-rate, income contingent voucher, regardless of severity of need or intensity of therapy, demonstrates an utterly thoughtless approach to care for some of the most vulnerable kids in the system, who are already dealing with inadequate funding thanks to an out-of-date and poorly designed Funding Formula. And caregivers have respondedwith panic, with disbelief, with precisely articulated rage.

It’s a message that all parents, including those not directly impactedat least not yet, because eventually all those in the education system will be affectedby this funding decision understand, because they too know they would respond with equal rage, desperation and dedication when it comes to their child’s well-being. Educators, education workers, therapists and caregivers understand it too. And if nothing else, this decision has underscored how support for public education must include a commitment to meet the social and educational needs of every child. It’s also thrown into stark relief why private sector model responses to public needs and universal rights are no solution.

Given the (rhetorical) focus on giving parents a voice, it’s interesting to see how many provincial governments have so deliberately limited one of the most obvious institutions that can formally facilitate parental and public consultation and advocacy. Quebec and Manitobanot to mention Ontarioare eyeing with interest and intent Nova Scotia’s decision to vastly reduce school boards. New Brunswick was the first province to do this in 1996, then partially backtracked in 2001 by establishing District Education Councils staffed with volunteers (three of whom in 2009 resigned, referring to the DECs as “part of a farce that is sold to the public as local governance”). We already have evidence of the (un)intended consequences of this move: PEI’s Home and Schools Federation has voiced concerns about how their province’s replacement of locally elected school boards with an appointed Public Schools Branch has limited democratic involvement and parental input. Similar concerns have been raised about a lack of local input into decision-making in Newfoundland and Labrador.

But there’s a point to this: when implementing a series of education reforms that ultimately undermine the potential of the system to meet the needs of kids, institutions of local democracy can be inconvenient to those in charge of the provincial pursestrings—particularly when those institutions provide a formal (and funded) public mechanism to speak out about the casualties of a centralized vision predicated on control and cost-cutting, and push back against that vision.

Political parties of all stripes run on “fixing” or committing to education. However, the various solutions they propose betray the degree to which private sector standards and approaches have been internalized in building and funding a system that is supposed to work for everyone. More conservative-minded governments (in ideology, if not necessarily in name…because have you been to Nova Scotia?) tend to implement wholesale “back to basics” cuts, often thinly disguised as restructuring, as part of austerity budgets.

And when those cuts become too much for families to bear, a new government is elected, after campaigning on increased education funding (the McGuinty Liberals in Ontario or the Notley NDPs in Alberta), and with it a series of “innovative” band-aids that acknowledge need without actually meeting it on a comprehensive basis.

This is not to say that there isn’t an increase in pockets of fundingoften there is, and it’s certainly welcome, particularly when considering the degree of underfunding that exists and the dependence on community fundraising increases to compensate. But let’s not pretend that it solves the baked-in structural deficit that continues to exist.

High quality, properly funded, flexible and properly staffed and supported public education isn’t one-size-fits-all, regardless of what reform-minded politicians say. In fact, it’s the opposite. But we don’t know what fully-funded education looks like, because we’ve never actually had it. Instead, we have a series of Funding Formulas that have largely resulted in boards or their proxies allocating inadequate sums of money to fund schools, address infrastructure, pay salaries, and (not) fully meet kids’ needs.

Until we change the starting point to what it would take to meet the needs of kids in the public system and build a funding model accordingly, any fixes, regardless of how well-meaning, will be temporary and piecemeal. And, as Doug Ford is showing us in Ontario, easily criticized as insufficient, promptly undone, and replaced with something even less adequate, often rhetorically gift-wrapped as “support for parents” and “finding system efficiencies” and “improving public accountability”. Because the whole point, as we’re seeing with autism funding, was to take more money from the system, and further smooth the path to privatization by providing public money (in insufficient amounts) to encourage parents to explore private care options.  

Neoliberal education reform is old and tired. But it’s also dangerouswhether it takes the form of (at best, lightly camouflaged) cuts, or half-measures posing as solutions. Neither option is anywhere near as innovative as it likes to pretend. And the stakes are too high to continue the repeating charade of undercut-cut-bandaid-undercut-cut that merely engenders disillusionment and further defunds the system…while kids pay the price.

Vinyl may be making a comeback. But when it comes to meeting the needs of our kids and funding schools accordingly, neoliberal education reform is one broken record we shouldin Ontario and elsewherepermanently discard.  


Erika Shaker is the editor of Our Schools / Our Selves and the Senior Education Researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. You can find her on Twitter at @ErikaShaker.

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