A School of One’s Own

Yesterday Chris posted an example of rational responses to perverse incentives in relations between principals and supply teachers in Ontario schools. Let me add some further thoughts on similar themes, specifically, the rash of school closures and consolidations that are all the rage now at Mowat Block and Queens Park.

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I’ve been involved recently in one such closure process, in west Hamilton, where a committed and diverse group of concerned parents and residents fought in vain to keep a small neighbourhood school open, against a board that was hellbent on closure, in spite of lip service to a variety of possible options. And Hamilton is certainly not unique: across the province school boards have been shuttering schools and looking for others to close, citing declining enrolments and prohibitive maintenance and repair costs.

These boards aren’t making up the numbers (although they sometimes fudge them in silly ways). Enrolments are generally declining across the province, especially in rural areas and traditional urban centers. And the costs of maintaining ageing facilities are going nowhere but up.

What is troubling, however, is the uniform obsession with closures. There are a range of creative and cost-effective ways we might reconfigure and reimagine existing facilities: partial decommisions, mixed uses, or a range of potential public-private partnerships. Most boards take none of these seriously.

One problem, especially evident in Hamilton, is the alarming degree to which school boards and city governments are locked into administrative solitudes. The result is that the very people who could profitably work together often see themselves working at cross-purposes.

The structure of provincial funding to local boards is of no help here: while the funding formula is complex and multifaceted, the primary unit of allocation is students, not schools. Thus, while enrollments ebb and wane for any given school, the costs of facility maintenance are unrelenting. The ministry touts their generous capital investment initiatives (green schools! good places to learn!), but ministerial rhetoric is decidedly less sanguine: urban boards were recently accused of using the funding formula to maintain small and underutilized schools. The implication is clear: full utilization of existing and proposed new facilities is the order of the day. No wonder that closures and property sales are overwhelmingly attractive options for struggling school boards.

As irritating as I find simple-minded mantras of efficiency and full utilization, I readily accept that there are good arguments for some closures and consolidation. I also think that my argument below for walkable neighbourhood schools may find less purchase for middle and high schools. Here, students may well benefit from going afield from their home communities to attend bigger, newer, better-equipped facilities.

But for our youngest students? In my judgement, they should have a school of their own.

By this I mean that we should think about primary schools as vital anchor institutions in safe, walkable neighbourhoods.

This is hardly a new idea. Indeed, everyone, of every political stripe, seems to accept some variant of this idea, recognizing the importance of schools to healthy, vibrant, attractive communities. Yet few seem willing to follow through the political and financial implications of this commitment.

I think that, at least for the first years of our childrens’ education, we should be less concerned with flashy new facilities and technologies, or the latest pedagogical fad from trendy theorists at OISE, and far more concerned with ensuring that children enjoy safe, walkable neighbourhoods, anchored by small schools. If efficiency and consolidation measures suggest that this will be more costly than busing students to fewer, larger schools, then that is a cost worth bearing, for the greater good of secure neighbourhoods with walkable schools.

I don’t pretend that this will be a cheap endeavour, and indeed, I’m not proposing any specific strategies for meeting this moral ideal of safe, walkable neighbourhoods. I am a political theorist by training, so my inclination is to be clear on our values and interests before worrying about implementation and costs. Framing the matter in the way I’ve laid out here makes clear just what is involved in educating a child: a nurturing home life, safe streets, and early healthy habits – like daily walking – all matter at least as much as school facilities, teacher training, and curriculum design.

But in a political system that compartmentalizes the day-to-day business of urban life (policing, zoning, parks and recreation) and education into separate administrative silos – each answering upward to respective ministries, rather than talking together, on the ground – it is difficult to imagine primary education as bound up with so much else of local politics and everyday life in our communities.

Instead, we think of education largely in terms of bricks and mortar and taxpayer dollars, curriculum and standardized testing and full-day kindergarten. In such an environment, calls for efficiency, accountability, and full utilization are the inevitable terms of discourse, rather than a broader understanding of primary schools as an intimate part of the fabric of everyday life in our neighbourhoods.

This is why, for instance, in our efforts in Hamilton, we kept hearing from our school board staff the insistence that they weren’t urban planners, and so they couldn’t take into consideration the impact of closures on, say, the attractiveness of surrounding homes to young families. The result: board staff and trustees, in Hamilton and various other cities and localities across the province, end up making decisions, based on narrow economic considerations, that have profound and enduring consequences for the future social and economic vitality of their host communities.

That strikes me as perverse.