Public School Programs of Choice: Private School in the Public System?

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Public School Programs of Choice: Private school in the public system?

by Tara Ehrcke

The 21st century has, so far, seen the great up-ending of one of the most fundamental tenets of public education—that all children, regardless of background or socio-economic status, should be able to reach the same educational end goal. This concept of equality of outcome was intricately tied to the notion that society provided, or should provide, for social mobility. One could improve one’s station in life because public institutions, such as public education, were grounded in what we would now more commonly refer to as equity. The system, rather than doling out resources equally to all children, would rather apportion them so as to ensure that those starting with a disadvantage had the opportunity to catch up.

The neoliberal turn of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has instead brought us back to the more basic and enduring features of capitalism. Institutions, rather than mitigating inequalities, are instead exacerbating them. Within schooling, this obviously takes shape clearly in the private versus public provision of schooling. But, even within the public school system, a great many features serve to further stratify children according to race, class and gender. We see aspects of private schools directly within public schools.

One such feature is school choice. “Choice” takes place in a variety of ways: the open catchment areas; allowing and increasing public funding of private schools; allowing school fees; and promoting niche schools and academies. With only limited opposition (from parents, teachers and school trustees) “choice” policies have changed the nature of BC’s public school system. The impact of these changes is that we are moving from a more comprehensive, equitable, neighbourhood and community oriented, publicly administered school system, towards a semi­private, stratified and segregated system in which precious limited resources are increasingly allocated to a privileged minority.

Parents can be easily swayed by these calls: How could school choice be a bad thing? How is wanting the best for my child making things worse for public education?

Teachers, administrators and school board trustees can similarly be entranced by school choice initiatives. They see opportunities to offer new and alternative programs that otherwise wouldn’t be supported. Or more likely, they see their existing programs cut and school choice policies the only method to try and maintain them. With fee structures, they see the chance to have properly funded programs. With dwindling support and resources from the basic Ministry budgets, these policies can appear to be the only way to keep such programs running.

But sometimes what seems or even is best for one child or one group of children is not best for all children. And what appears to be saving an individual program is in fact fundamentally changing the nature of the school system.

School choice exists in British Columbia in a variety of forms. All catchment boundaries are now open, or semi-open, allowing parents to register in a school outside their catchment area. French immersion, perhaps the longest running, largest, and most entrenched program of choice, is now commonly known as “the private system within public schools.” Immersion programs are notoriously unfriendly towards struggling learners. Children with challenges typically cannot receive special education services in French, and are often advised to switch back into the English stream.

Yet another form of school choice is the Academy, or niche program. There are sports academies, and arts academies, but also academic academies such as International Baccalaureate programs, honours programs, and challenge programs. These specialty programs often have competitive enrolment processes, and often require the payment of school fees (typically $2000 – $5000, but as much as $17,000/year). Thus, they are available only to a small subset of students.

Data from the Vancouver School Board verifies the low number of students with an IEP, who are English Language Learners, or who are Aboriginal within the Vancouver Board school choice programs.

Source: VSB, Freedom of Information request number 2014­25

Research on school choice programs generally finds that access to choices varies in relation to socioeconomic status, and that choice tends to have the effect of stratifying along socioeconomic lines. Parents who have more social capital will exercise their rights to choose. They are the ones able to pay additional fees, drive across town, or wait in overnight line­ups. Often, they are simply the parents who know about the choices and the ways to access them.

When these parents access special schools and programs, they are choosing a demographic that matches their own, and thereby reducing the diversity of the schools and programs they have left.

Even the rather conservative Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) acknowledges what the research shows:

“School choice advocates often argue that the introduction of market mechanisms in education allows equal access to high quality schooling for all. Expanding school choice opportunities, it is said, would allow all students – including disadvantaged ones and the ones attending low performing schools – to opt for higher quality schools, as the introduction of choice in education can foster efficiency, spur innovation and raise quality overall. However, evidence does not support these perceptions, as choice and associated market mechanisms can enhance segregation.
…
Although parents may be concerned about equity and integration and may support their neighbourhood school, they seek at the same time the “best” education for their children… Parents with a better­ off background tend to avoid schools with a significant number of disadvantaged students and research suggests that parents prefer schools with populations ethnically similar to their own family… All these elements contribute to socio­economic segregation between schools.”

A genuinely public school system includes equal opportunity for all members of the public. Schooling must be common, collective and universal; equity must be a guiding principle.

To restore equity in public schools, we should focus on these goals:

  1. Advocate for fully funded comprehensive neighbourhood schools with a full range of programming at every school, available to every child
  2. Eliminate school choice policies including open catchments, niche schools/programs, program fees, and streaming
  3. Eliminate all private funding: subsidies to private schools, fundraising, corporate and other private donations, and school and program fees

A longer version of this article published in Our Schools, Our Selves is available here.

Tara Ehrcke is a high school math teacher in Victoria and Past President of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association.

Monopoly Technology Platforms are Colonizing Education

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Monopoly Technology Platforms are Colonizing Education

By Larry Kuehn

The exposés of abuse by social media corporations like Google and Facebook have finally brought attention to the dangers of monopolies over our communications. The way these monopolies have been colonizing public education has, however, gone almost unnoticed. This is rampant privatization sneaking in as essential to “21st Century learning.”

The top five global capital corporations are technology platforms—Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. Platforms are a host for a variety of services and uses. All of the big five platform corporations have become too large in a short period of time to have any significant competition outside of this group. They compete against one another, adding services to secure their monopoly by offering users everything they do online.

If a new service is developed that seems to be gaining users, or that competes with an element of their platform, it is purchased and integrated into the platform—avoiding new competitors. Alternatively, they use their massive resources to develop a comparable app and push the potential competitor aside.

Snicek, in Platform Capitalism, points out that the development of these monopolies “introduces new tendencies within capitalism that pose significant challenges to a post-capitalist future.” Building public cooperative platforms becomes an impossible dream.

No surprise—these platforms have moved to colonize education. Public education represents a big chunk of potential revenue. Just as importantly, schools are where one can find most of the future potential consumers and users of the platform services.

Colonization is a process where a significant force moves into an area and dominates. It takes over not only the production and resources, but imposes—often by stealth and power—the processes and approaches and even values of the social and cultural environment. And, dominate is what the monopoly platforms are on track to do in public education.

The most successful colonizer has been Google. A recent report indicates that Google’s G-Suite for Education is being used by half the teachers and students in the U.S. Canada is fast approaching the same level of use. It includes a range of free software tools that can be used by students and teachers—word processing, presentations, spread sheets and the like. G-Suite incorporates “Classroom,” an integrated learning management system that keeps track of grades, attendance and more. And, of course, YouTube is linked to student use.

New elements are added frequently. “Google Sites” is promoted for student e-portfolios, because “every student should publish for the world.” Google acquired Workbench, integrated with Google Classroom to give “lessons connected to a variety of ‘maker’ activities focused on STEM.” It is part of Google’s plan to “help schools and educators address their universal needs around education content.”

Google, rather than democratic public institutions, therefore shapes what is on offer. Google’s position as colonizer is strengthened by the hardware increasingly used in schools—the Google Chromebook. It is less expensive than other computers because much of what it needs to operate is supplied by Google in the cloud—operating software, applications and memory. No need to build those into the computer.  According to market reports, Chromebooks make up the majority of all computers sold to schools in the U.S. and are marketed globally.

However, one must have a gmail account to use these Google tools—so if a parent wants to protect the privacy of their child and refuses a gmail account that kid is left out while the rest of the class works away on their Chromebook and other Google tools. (See here the kind of consent form parents are asked to sign, giving Google access to acquire and store student information outside of Canada.)

Google has even taken up teaching “internet safety,” with a program aimed at reaching 5 million students. Its core is a game for students in Grades three to six to teach them to avoid “schemers, hackers and other bad actors.” However, as critics point out, it doesn’t talk about privacy concerns when users’ personal information and actions are tracked online. Google conveniently ignores its role as a “bad actor.”

A Swedish study of Google’s strategy concluded that “By making an implicit demarcation between two concepts (your) ‘data’ and (collected) ‘information’ Google can disguise the presence of a business model for online marketing and, at the same time, simulate the practices and ethics of a free public service institution.”

In “The Weaponization of Education Data,” Audrey Watters points out “the risk isn’t only hacking.  It’s amassing data in the first place. It’s profiling. It’s tracking. It’s surveilling.”

Google isn’t alone in the business of colonizing education and student data—just the most successful so far. One competitor is Microsoft 365 Education, with a promise of “empowering every student on the planet to achieve more” and that it will “unlock limitless learning.”

It’s not an accident that it is “Microsoft 365” that is being pushed. It offers a cloud-based software and cloud storage for your work. It is the new business model for Microsoft: they don’t sell you software, you rent it—and you keep paying for it. And your work isn’t saved on your own computer, so you have to keep up your subscription. Like Google, they are hoping that students will keep using their tools when they finish being students.

Microsoft is imitating much of what Google offers, but by charging for the service rather than trading it for data. It offers apps, educator training and STEM lessons “to enrich science, technology, engineering and math classes.” They offer “budget friendly” Windows 10 devices with licences for Microsoft 365 Education.

The other major tech corporations have programs as well. Apple, for example, was the first into education with the Apple IIe and the “Apple Classroom of Tomorrow” way back in the 1980s. More recently it depended on the ease of use of the iPad, despite its cost, to sell classroom sets along with Pearson curriculum in an ill-fated project with Los Angeles schools.

Venture capitalists are hoping to find the magic app that will make a fortune. The potential market is indicated by expenditure of hundreds of millions each year on developing new products. The “winners” are likely to be bought up by one of the major corporations—or find their product idea taken by the monopolies.

Not enough attention is paid by education authorities or researchers to the shaping and distortion of education that is possible—even likely—by this colonization of education by technology monopolies.

Larry Kuehn is an IPE/BC Fellow, IPE/BC director and Director of Research & Technology for the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. 

Are Private Schools Better than Public Schools?

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Are Private Schools Better than Public Schools?

Perception Versus Reality

By E. Wayne Ross

Last year the BBC ran a story with the headline “How Canada Became an Education Superpower.”  The BBC pointed out that Singapore, South Korea and Finland usually get mentioned as the world’s top performing education systems, “but with much less recognition, Canada has climbed to the top tier of international rankings.”

Whenever the OECD releases the Program for International Student Assessments (PISA) results, breathless reporting usually follows. There are many reasons to be skeptical of international rankings based upon a single test given to 15 year-olds.

Despite its international “superpower” status, a majority of Canadians don’t believe their public schools measure up to private schools. Less than seven percent of Canadian students attend private schools, but the majority of Canadians believe private schools provide a better education than public schools. In a 2012 Ipsos-Reid poll, 58% of respondents stated they believe private school education is better than public school education; 63% said they would send their children to private schools if they could afford it.

In British Columbia, there has been a 12% drop in public school enrolment since 2000. Meanwhile private school enrolments have increased from nine percent in 2000 to 13% in 2017, almost double the national average (Source: FISABC).

Between 2000–01 and 2016–17, the full-time equivalent (FTE) student enrolment in BC independent schools increased from 57,462.7 to 81,180.6. This is an increase of 41.3% (Source: BCTF)

So, if more parents in Canada and BC are choosing to send their children to private school is this an indication that private schools are really better than public schools? Not necessarily – indeed the research evidence suggests the answer is “no.” I will come back to this point in moment, but first let’s explore the conventional wisdom that private schools are better than public schools.

In BC, key factors that coincide with private school enrolment increases is an historic era of labour conflict, budget cuts, school closures and overcrowding in the public school system from 2000-2016.

Another factor related to increased private school enrolment is marketing. Extensive marketing campaigns touting a private school advantage cannot be underestimated.

In addition, while BC public schools were under a funding siege for the first 16 years of this century, private schools were enjoying significant funding increases and a wealth of positive (and free) press from publication of school ranking schemes, which consistently placed private schools at the top.

Between 2000–01 and 2016–17, funding for BC independent schools increased by 95.9%. This is larger than student enrolment increases by 54.6%, and larger than funding increases for public schools by 90.0%. (Source: BCTF)

All of these factors feed the idea there is a private school advantage.

But, reality is more than appearances and focusing exclusively on appearances—on the evidence that strikes us immediately and directly—can be misleading. This is particularly true when we examine school rankings because private schools’ higher average test scores are at the heart of the conventional belief that private schools are better than public schools, along with their typically well-funded programs.

Anyone who scrolls through the rankings of BC schools will find evidence that students who attend private schools have better on average academic performance than public school students. But the key question is to what degree do private schools actually produce those results?

There is a growing body of research evidence that attempts to answer this question.

In 2011, OECD’s analysis of PISA results found that while students in private schools tended to outperform their public school peers, the difference was primarily the result of the higher socio-economic status of private school families.

“Students in public schools in a similar socio-economic context as private schools tend to do equally well,” according to the OECD report, which concluded that “there is no evidence to suggest that private schools help to raise the level of performance of the school system, as a whole” (OECD, Private schools: Who benefits?)

In their 2013 book, The Public School Advantage, University of Illinois researchers Sarah Theule Lubienski and Christopher Lubienski found that compared to private schools students, public school students performed the same if not better on achievement tests once demographic factors were taken into account.

Statistics Canada echoed these findings in a 2015 report, which found students in Canadian private schools have more educational success than their public school counterparts because of their socio-economic characteristics, not because of private schools themselves.

The StatsCan report identifies two factors that consistently account for differences between public and private school student academic outcomes. “Students who attended private high schools were more likely to have socio-economic characteristics positively associated with academic success and to have school peers with university-educated parents … School resources and practices accounted for little of the differences in academic outcomes” (Statistics Canada: Academic Outcomes of Public and Private High School Students: What Lies Behind the Differences?)

And, in a study published last month, University of Virginia researchers Robert C. Pianta and Arya Ansari examined the extent to which enrolment in private schools between kindergarten and grade nine was related to students’ academic, social, psychological and attainment outcomes at age 15. This longitudinal study of over one thousand students concluded:

“… children with a history of enrollment in private schools performed better on nearly all outcomes assessed in adolescence. However, by simply controlling for the socio-demographic characteristics that selected children and families into these schools, all of the advantages of private school education were eliminated.”

In addition, Pianta and Ansari found no evidence to suggest that low-income children or children enrolled in urban schools, benefited from private school enrolment.

Are private schools really better than public schools? Conventional wisdom may say they are, but the evidence suggests that is a myth.

Parents send their children to private schools for a variety of reasons that make sense for them. But, there is substantial and growing evidence that there is no value-added in private school education.

For more research-based resources on private schools see “Resources on Private Schools” by National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.

E. Wayne Ross is a Professor of education at the University of British Columbia and an IPE/BC Board Member and Fellow.

What do we teach while the world is burning?

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

What Do We Teach While the World is Burning?

by Lizanne Foster

I usually spend August thinking about what I’ll do when I’m back at school again in September but lately all I can think about is 48 C rain. I keep wondering about what lessons would prepare my teen students for a world where hot water falls from the sky, where oceans are too warm to cool nuclear reactors, and when road surfaces  from India to the UK keep melting.

What kinds of skills will be needed in order to thrive if a domino effect of deforestation and thawing tundra turns our planet into a hothouse?

I suspect that knowing how to parse a sentence or how to solve for x aren’t going to be essential skills in such an environment.

But what will be?

I’d be willing to bet that teachers in 1918 were confident that a liberal arts curriculum would prepare students to fit socially and economically into a rapidly modernizing, industrializing world. An essential skill then was probably a sensibility to not stray too far beyond the boundaries of conformity while thinking critically about established ideas in literature, math and science. For most of the 20th century, high school graduates who had mastered this skill could look forward to decades of socio-economic rewards.

But is this skill still enough for students who will graduate into the third decade of the 21st century?

What do my 15-year-old students need to know?

Certainly there’ll be discussions about the socio-cultural impacts of artificial intelligence and the economic outlook for a “world without work,” but I’m not quite sure where in our curriculum we’ll be addressing living in a world where new colours have to be added to weather maps to display unprecedented heat.

Should we be teaching them how to recover after wildfires or rising seas have destroyed their homes?

Should they consider how they’ll respond to the millions of migrants whose homes will have become “the mouth of a shark” as the poet Warsan Shire so eloquently describes?

A century ago a few teachers may have encouraged teens to question militarism in the aftermath of The Great War but any suggestion that relentless economic growth would lead to millions of deaths and an uninhabitable planet would likely have resulted in a referral to an asylum. After all, the age of mass consumerism was just beginning and there were all those newly electrified gadgets to buy.

Any day now the back-to-school ads will be popping up on screens everywhere. We’ll keep being reminded to buy, buy, buy. The tragic irony is that we have created an economy that is utterly dependent on consumer confidence and yet it’s mass consumption that is leading us to a new norm of rain that falls at 48 degrees Celsius and rivers too warm for salmon to spawn.

And there’s the rub, isn’t it? When our education system is a product of, and is sustained by a consumerist society, is it hypocritical to challenge conformity to consumerism?

What role do teachers have in the necessary transition away from our fossil-fuel dependent economy?

Within the next 24 months, my Grade 10 students are going to have to make choices about future education and careers. What should they know about how their lives may be affected given that many experts are predicting that the “oil bubble is about to burst“?

Does my teaching role include preparing my students for a post-consumer society? Can we actually return to a time when we were known by our “societal roles (parents …doctors, plumbers, etc.) or political status (voters),” not just by our roles as consumers or customers?

I don’t know.

What does one teach when the world is burning?

Lizanne Foster is an IPE/BC Fellow and a secondary teacher in Surrey.

Inequality and International Student Tuition

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Inequality and International Student Tuition in BC School Districts

A just released BCTF Research Report, International student tuition income increases—and inequality grows, authored by IPE/BC Fellow Larry Kuehn describes the increase in international student enrollment in BC schools, resulting in a substantial increase in resources for schools in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland.

The policy has been a success in an economic sense. International education is the third highest “export” from BC, behind only forestry products and minerals. Education—K–12 and post-secondary—is considered an “export” because it brings in income from across borders for tuition and living expenses. However, given the way it is structured, the increases in tuition revenue also increase the inequalities.

A few report highlights:

  • Eleven school districts (out of 60) received 73% of the total funds in 2016–17: 10 districts in the Metro Vancouver area and the Victoria area.
  • International student tuition is generally $15,000 for an academic year, twice what BC provides for each Canadian student.
  • West Vancouver and Coquitlam school districts benefit the most from international student tuition revenue.

Tuition from international students was promoted by the previous administration to increase financial resources during a period of government austerity policies. The question now is how the inequality this revenue stream has created will be addressed in the future school funding formulas.

Click here for the full report.

Navigating Educational Technology

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Navigating Educational Technology

by Vis Naidoo

In 1998, Shafika Isaacs and I introduced the concept of the value chain for the use of technology in school education. We reviewed various projects in South Africa at the time and noted that unless key elements of the education system are functioning at a basic minimum level, no matter what technology is thrown at it, we would not attain the expected learning outcomes and improve quality. We stressed the need to focus on education and not on the technology and be strategic about how we use it to enhance learning in schools, universities and other spheres of life.

Two key research conclusions about the impact of educational technology are:

  1. Technology itself cannot improve learning and instruction but it is the effective use of technology that will see better education impacts.
  2. Technology developments will continue to influence and change our lives, the way we work and live. It will also change the education landscape.

Technology on its own cannot improve education systems and require other elements to be functional and focus on the effective use of technology. Yet our education systems continue to invest in technology, often based on what seems to be the latest and greatest. How do we address this so that the education system can achieve the results we expect with current and innovative technology developments? How do we avoid our education becoming too influenced by the latest technology development and ‘carpet-baggers’ peddling the latest technology with promises to revolutionize education?

Perhaps a good starting point is to have an agreed understanding of educational technology. I draw on the research work commissioned by DfID where they define edtech as ‘the use of digital or electronic technologies and materials to support teaching and learning.’

For education technology to have an impact is to enable its effective use. Technologies have and will continue to emerge and offer new possibilities to impact learning and teaching, enable large-scale support of learning leading to improvements in learner progress and quality of education. For this to take place the policy environment, school management, digital content and teacher development are important. The report on the impact of educational technology notes the following:

Therefore, useful research on the impact of educational technology should focus on the complete system, including the teacher, the content taught, the technology used, the school system or environment in which the teacher is working, and the environment in which the learning is taking place.

I have developed a framework to consider when looking at ICT integration and use within the school system. Based on this framework, it is useful to consider the following questions to determine what constitutes an effective and cost-efficient edtech program:

  • Is this within the policy framework of the country/province and does it help to advance the strategy leading to the achievement of the national/provincial goals, including the country’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)?
  • What are the learning outcomes, how is the curriculum structured and where will technology be used to enable learning and the achievement of outcomes?
  • What learning support materials and technology will be used?
  • Is there an effective teacher development and pedagogy focus so teachers are able to use technology to improve their teaching methods?
  • What evaluation methods will be used to determine the value of the edtech program and whether it supports the achievements of the outcomes?

When determining the educational technology that will best work for schools, perhaps it is important to note the criteria that will hold the edtech companies to greater accountability. Any edtech purchased needs to have effective support for teachers and their professional development, so there are no further fees required for this. Of course, having the education product developed with the central involvement of teachers is another imperative that helps to deliver relevant learning materials and methodologies in edtech programs.

When choosing an edtech products or services, it is important to understand how these will be used and the kind of after-sales customer service available. This helps ensure it is easy to install and use and there is an effective support to troubleshoot and address system-level problems. Once a purchase of a product or service is made, there should be no need for further purchases to make the edtech tools work.

There is increasing evidence of the value of edtech in support of attaining educational outcomes, the impact on teaching and learning and changing the way learning is taking place. Further evidence is required to understand ‘what difference was made to the educational experiences of the teachers, students, and communities involved.’ This further illustrates the need to ensure the design and implementation of edtech programs are carefully planned to improve educational quality and collect data and conduct analysis to determine the impact.

See also:

Power, T., Gater, R., Grant, C. and Winters, N. (2014). Educational Technology Topic Guide. The Health & Education Advice & Resource Team (HEART) with funding from British Government’s DfID.

Vis Naidoo is an IPE/BC Fellow and education technology expert .

Why Not Abolish School Property Taxes Altogether?

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Why Not Abolish School Property Taxes Altogether?

by John Malcolmson

People concerned about Vancouver’s speculator-driven rise in real estate costs might have been encouraged to see the NDP government impose a special property surtax on high cost houses in last month’s provincial budget. This tax is estimated to raise $50 million in the current fiscal year.

Obviously, anything that makes the well-heeled pay a little extra or tames profit-taking in the housing market should benefit the push for increased affordability.

Of particular interest is that monies raised by the tax are earmarked for the public schools. After all, our hard-pressed school system can use all the funding support it can get, right?

It is useful to pause and consider the underlying facts with property taxes. The BC School Act mandates that all school property taxes raised in the province are to be used to fund public schools. But will the extra money raised in Vancouver, where most $3 million+ valued homes are located, go to the beleaguered District 39?  Not a chance. This is where the story gets interesting.

For years Vancouver has raised more property tax than is needed to fund its budget because school property tax tracks assessed property values not school expenditures. What this means is when all Vancouver taxes are counted and the value of homeowner grants to School District residents is deducted, the District brings in more money than is required to fund its entire provincial grant. In 2015, the district raised $447 million in property tax in support of returning provincial school grant payments of $434 million, a surplus of $13 million. The current surplus is likely higher than 2015 because of the past two years’ rapid run-up in city real estate prices.

This is a curious because the provincial government controls tax rates applied to the various classes of property and residential rates are specific to each district. The province could tweak rates further down in a revenue surplus district like Vancouver to reduce the take and bring tax receipts back into balance with what is needed. But it doesn’t.

The net result is that “surplus” taxes raised in Vancouver are shipped to other districts around the province to subsidize their budgetary requirements. This is because the provincial government controls and fixes the size of budgetary allocations to BC’s sixty school districts. There is no more room for additional property tax dollars in the Vancouver school district budget because the District already overfunds its budget. Paradoxically, layering another property tax onto upscale city real estate will only make the current imbalance worse. Because the overwhelming majority of new surtax revenue will come from Vancouver, this is very much a revenue measure that singles out the city, its school district and its property owners.

(See here, for this analysis of Provincial Property-based Taxes in the Metro Vancouver Region prepared by Cascadia Partners.)

How can this problem be solved?  Returning property tax control to each district may sound like a solution, but it is not. Property tax assessments are unevenly distributed in this province and giving control to local districts would be a retrograde step, one that would move BC in the direction of many American jurisdictions where the gap separating rich and poor school districts is wide. For obvious reasons, we do not want a situation where some BC districts can raise new taxes this way and others simply cannot.

A real solution would be to abolish property taxes earmarked for school purposes, or at least the residential property taxes which currently account for close to 40% of total property tax receipts. There is no good reason to maintain a tax levy created a century ago when districts lacked access to other sources of revenue. Today, districts have recourse to the provincial budget and the province is responsible for properly funding our public schools. School property taxes on residences are an anachronism that should be done away with.

Most, but not all, Canadian provinces still rely on property tax support because changing tax systems is difficult and runs the risk of unsettling local governments and taxpayers. Nonetheless, BC has an opportunity to break new ground here in efforts to reform public school finance.

Another real benefit in this proposal is that it could allow local governments in Vancouver and elsewhere to access tax room for other priorities. Our local governments are perennially starved for funding to support important transportation initiatives or the development of low cost housing. Both are key to the development of livable and affordable cities.

Property taxes used to be a keystone of public school finance in this province. Now they are an important revenue base held hostage to an antiquated system. The province needs to accept its responsibility for fully funding all schools equitably, and local governments need the revenue tools to fix urgent problems that threaten urban affordability and livability. Both problems could be addressed through this needed reform of the school property tax system.

John Malcolmson is an IPE/BC Fellow and was formerly the CUPE K-12 sector research analyst.

 

Private Schools Don’t Need Public Funding

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Private Schools Don’t Need Public Funding

by Joel French

Private schools do not need public funding. That could easily have been the title of the Fraser Institute’s recent report on private schools across Canada.

The data throughout the report certainly supports that conclusion, though of course it is never stated. Instead, the report, titled A Diverse Landscape: Independent Schools in Canada, reads like a marketing piece for private schools and is focused on dispelling a straw man argument that private schools are only for the “urban elite.” The report finds that nearly half of private schools are religious in nature and that many others are “specialty schools” with a particular curriculum focus, such as arts or athletics.

The data in the report paints a clear picture: public funding for private schools is completely unnecessary.

Looking beyond this main focus, the report contains interesting information related to the public funding of private schools. It points out that only five of Canada’s 10 provinces provide any funding for private schools: British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Quebec. Alberta funds its private schools at a higher rate than any other province at 70 per cent, while British Columbia has the highest percentage of private schools receiving public funding at 87.9 per cent.

The fact that only five provinces fund private schools allows us to analyze the impact that public funding has on those schools’ student enrollment, as well as the correlation between public funding and the number of private schools in each province. The data in the report paints a clear picture: public funding for private schools is completely unnecessary. The level of public funding allocated to private schools has no direct correlation with student enrollment in private schools nor in the number of private schools in operation.

The release of the Fraser Institute’s report was accompanied by three province-specific statements for British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario. The three provinces offer very different levels of public funding, so they provide a good sample to analyze the effect of public funding on private schools. British Columbia funds the majority of its private schools at a level of 50 per cent, while Alberta funds most of its private schools at 70 per cent, and Ontario provides no funding for its private schools.

The Fraser Institute has claimed that private schools save public money. This claim relies on the assumption that if public funding were to be removed from private schools, students from those schools would flock to the public system where their education would cost the public even more money. The problem is that their own data tells a different story.

Of the three provinces, the one giving the most public funding to private schools has the lowest private school enrollment. Alberta’s rate of student enrollment in private schools is 4.4 per cent, while British Columbia’s is 11.6 per cent, and Ontario’s is 5.6 per cent. So although British Columbia provides public funding at a rate 20 per cent below that of Alberta, its enrollment in private schools is more than double. And although Ontario provides no public funding at all to private schools, they have a higher enrollment rate than their Alberta counterparts. Clearly, the number of students attending private schools does not depend on the rate of public funding and can even be higher without public funding.

The number of private schools in the three provinces tells a similar story. Alberta has one private school for roughly every 28,000 residents, whereas both British Columbia and Ontario have one for every 14,000 residents. So the province funding private schools at the highest rate (Alberta) has half the number of schools per capita of the other two provinces. Less or no public funding evidently does not lead to fewer private schools.

If the biggest benefit to the public of having private schools is to save the public money, then the data in the Fraser Institute report points in an obvious direction. Instead of Alberta funding its private schools at a rate of 70 per cent, it could drop its funding to the British Columbia level of 50 per cent and save even more money. Or better yet, it could eliminate public funding for private schools altogether like Ontario, where there are more private schools per capita and a higher student enrollment rate.

The NDP government in Alberta has yet to follow through on three of the education-related promises in its election platform. It pledged to reduce class sizes and increase supports for children with complex needs, reduce mandatory school fees for things like lunch supervision and bussing, and fund a school lunch program for elementary students. The platform pegged the total cost of those three promises at $140 million per year, and the plan was to begin that funding in 2015. Last year, Alberta gave more than $200 million in public funding to private schools.

The Fraser Institute’s report, true to its purpose, paints a rosy picture of private schools in Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario. In fact, its press releases for each province are nearly identical, with an equal amount of praise doled out to each province. Compare them yourself: AlbertaBritish Columbia and Ontario

Which leads to the question: if the private school situations in these three provinces are to be lauded in such a carbon-copy manner, why should public money be given to private schools at all?

Note: This piece was previously published in Ricochet July 19, 2016.

Joel French is Executive Director of Public Interest Alberta.

Education Technology: The Trojan Horse of Privatization

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Education Technology: The Trojan Horse of Privatization

by Larry Kuehn

Technology entrepreneurs favorite words are “break,” “disruptive innovation” and “creative destruction.” Uber replaces taxis; Spotify breaks owning music collections; and, Amazon creatively destroys personal shopping for groceries, as it already has for everything from books to appliances to almost every commodity.

The Holy Grail of education technology entrepreneurs is to be the Uber of education… to become the platform that disrupts traditional face-to-face education and replaces it with technology dominated learning. Since this search for the singular platform is being carried out in capitalist economies, profit is the major end. It is not seeking solutions to inequalities exacerbated by the domination of monopoles in day-to-day, technology-driven living.

Education technology has developed in ways that reinforce individualization within a competitive environment, responding to and reinforcing neo-liberal patterns, creating the neo-liberal person. Widespread adoption of education built on this kind of individualization produces a form of privatization within the public education system, one that is based on preparing students for employment in a technological, corporate-dominated system, rather than preparing them for citizenship as a collective responsibility.

This presents challenges for critical educators who recognize that ignoring technology is not an option, but who want to find or create space for alternative approaches that support social justice and pursue pedagogy based on critical and social constructivist approaches.

Developing critical alternatives requires first an analysis of the approaches currently being taken by education technology entrepreneurs, then seeking spaces within these technologies that can be used to promote social goals, not just private, individual gain.  The current education technology landscape employs four dominant strategies: digital content, learning management systems, education apps, and universal platforms.

Digital content  

Historically, print technology has dominated in providing content in schools, but the challenge now is what will replace the physical, hard-copy textbook in this new digital era.

The textbook industry has been going through consolidation, leaving two major textbook publishers—the British transnational Pearson PLC and the American McGraw-Hill. Pearson has adopted a strategy of offering content digitally on a global basis as a way of surviving in the new context.  However, it has not been entirely successful. The corporation has been losing money to such an extent that it has sold off other forms of publishing–the Economist magazine, and its book publishing arm Penguin Random House, as well as software for English Language Learning sold to a Chinese company.

One potential challenge to the corporate publisher model is open publishing. Groups of authors join together to develop online resources for classroom use.  They may be offered at a small cost (teacherspayteachers.com) or made available under a Creative Commons license for anyone to use in teaching.  A major part of the cost of the print textbook is marketing and distribution. Digital distribution reduces costs and allows for cooperative forms of competition with the traditional textbook publishers. Open education resource distribution could disrupt the textbook market.

Learning Management Systems (LMS)

Learning Management Systems are online versions of the structure of face to face classroom. They have content; they have areas for discussion, both with a teacher and with other students; they include the ability to give tests to the student; and they provide the capacity to report student progress, both grades and other data.  LMS’s are used extensively in online learning, but also in face-to-face classrooms, particularly in “blended learning,” a combination of in person and online learning.

As in other areas of technology, many systems were developed, but only a few businesses survive as smaller ones are bought out and consolidated into fewer, near monopoly corporations. The major LMSs still standing are Blackboard and Canvas, as well as Desire2Learn, a Canadian LMS with a narrower market reach. One free to use open source system is Moodle, which has a large user-base.

Pearson sold its LMS, saying that they only work effectively on desktop or laptop computers, not on smart phones. The future market, they say, is in smartphones as billions of people have access, but many fewer have desktops or laptops. Pearson says, apps with a specific purpose will dominate.

Education Apps

Thousands of apps for education have already been created. Development costs are often covered by venture capitalists. They invest in app development with the hope that future profits will provide a return on investment when it captures a significant number of users. In many cases, the return is the sale of information about the teachers and students using the app. It is the users themselves who are the source of profits when their data is sold.

An example of one of these apps is FreshGrade, an e-portfolio system developed and widely used in British Columbia. The student and teacher upload work being done by the student, particularly photos, videos and audio. The parent has access to the e-portfolio of their child. The claim is these portfolio systems engage parents by giving more access to what their child is doing in school.

Special purpose apps have been a hot item in the education technology area, with education app venture capital investments of more than $4 billion in 2015.

Universal platforms: Google Suite, Microsoft Office 365 Education and Facebook

The behemoths of technology don’t require any venture capital because they have huge research budgets to spend on projects without announcing them to anyone until they are ready.

“Universal platforms” are a base on which many different elements can built. They do not intend to develop content, expecting others will do that. The platform brings both creators and users of content together into the same environment. Companies prosper when their platform is the go-to place for any online activity. Education is attractive because it’s a mass of folks, more than 30 million teachers and hundreds of millions of students globally, and Google, Microsoft and Facebook all have global reach.

This description of Google’s G Suite makes clear the comprehensive make up of the platform that is on offer:

G Suite is a package of cloud-based services that can provide your company or school with a whole new way to work together online—not just using email and chat, but over video conferences, social media, real-time document collaborations, and more….You and your team can begin using Gmail, Calendar, Drive, and other core G Suite services, as well as additional services like Google+, Hangouts, Blogger and more.

Google’s strategy for attracting teachers is to use a friend and collaborator approach. It offers training to selected teachers who then encourage colleagues and their districts to adopt G Suite. These teachers offer (often free) workshops for teachers, encouraging the expanded use of G Suite. Google offers the same tools to businesses, making a link for students to use the Google tools when they enter employment.

Google presented itself as an education platform before Microsoft moved in to compete. Microsoft’s focus on cloud-based services is part of its strategy for competing to be the platform for education services. Microsoft has announced that teachers and students can use “Office 365 Education” for free. It offers a free online course introducing teachers to Microsoft education services. Preparing students as workers is made clear when its sales pitch to teachers says, it “allows students to create products as if they were already in the workforce.”

Understanding corporate influence on education through education technology

A New York Times report captured the nature of the edtech Trojan Horse of public education:

The involvement by some of the wealthiest and most influential titans of the 21st century amounts to a singular experiment in education, with millions of students serving as de facto beta testers for their ideas. Some tech leaders believe that applying an engineering mind-set can improve just about any system, and that their business acumen qualifies them to rethink American education.   (“The Silicon Valley Billionaires Remaking America’s Schools by Natasha Singer,” NYT, June 6, 2017)

Historically, the state has had the primary role in defining the purpose and content of education. Edtech corporations are now pushing the state aside, bringing corporate purposes directly into the classroom, an often invisible shift in power. The aim of these technological forms of privatization is not to create private schools. Rather, they seek profits by integrating into public education. Those seeking to create dominant platforms take the longer view on profits and hope to train students to continue to use their platform when they move into life and work after school.

Much of the attention to technology in schools is about the tools. It is essential to pay attention to who really benefits from the use of the tools, not just how to use them.

Note: An earlier version of this blog post appeared in Intercambio magazine.

Larry Kuehn is an IPE/BC Fellow, IPE/BC director and Director of Research & Technology for the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. 

Small Class Size Matters: Why the SCC Decision Won’t Go Far Enough

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Small Class Size Matters: Why the SCC Decision Won’t Go Far Enough

by Sandra Mathison

Ask any parent if they want their child in a classroom with 15 students or 30 students and the answer is obvious. Ask any teacher if they would prefer to teach a class of 15-20 students or one with 35 students and again the answer is obvious. The obvious answers are not reflected in class sizes in British Columbia’s schools.

With the Supreme Court of Canada decision will come restoration of class size and composition for BC schools. That means restoring class size to 2001 levels: 20 for Kindergarten, 22 for Grades 1–3, and in most districts 30 for Grades 4–12. Rolling back class size is a good thing, but even this much needed remedy will not go far enough in taking full advantage of the benefits of small class size.

What we know is that smaller classes lead to positive student outcomes. And this is so because students are more engaged, spend more time on educational tasks, and gives teachers the opportunity to tailor instruction to the needs and abilities of students.

Students in small classes are more engaged in what they are learning, have greater opportunities to express themselves and to participate. (See, for example, here.) And, as a result, student peers tend to trust each other and to be less disruptive. (See here.)

The benefits are not only apparent in academic indicators like test scores and grades, but also longer term educational and life outcomes like high school completion, less juvenile criminal behaviour, and increased post-secondary enrollment.

This is common sense, but the research bears this out as well. One of the best designed studies to inform our understanding of class size is Tennessee’s STAR (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio) study, and from this study we have learned much about the benefits of small classes. (The previous link summarizes the STAR study, but see also, Mosteller, Frederick (1995). The Tennessee study of class size in the early school grades. The Future of Children, 5(2), 113-127.)

The smaller classes performed substantially better by the end of second grade in test scores, grades, and fewer disciplinary referrals. The gains lasted. The students that had been assigned to smaller classes were more likely to graduate in four years, more likely to go to college, and more likely to get a degree in a STEM field. The positive effect was twice as large for poor and minority students, and thus narrowed the achievement gap.

This research suggests we should work toward small classrooms and give teachers the opportunity to provide instruction tailored to students’ needs, to give consistent and individual feedback, and to use class time for educational goals rather than on discipline.

Not only do we know that small class sizes are beneficial, we also know that is especially so for early grades and for students who come to school with disadvantages, such as poverty, limited English proficiency, and minority status.

Small class size benefits teachers as well by improving working conditions, increasing job satisfaction, and retention.

How small is small though? The research evidence suggests that any reduction in class size will likely have some positive effect, but that optimally small classes sizes are between 15 and 20 students. (Small classes in the STAR study were between 13 and 17 students.) For BC schools to take advantage of the benefits of small class size this means much further reductions are needed, indeed class size for all students ought to be at least at the level set for BC Kindergarten classes in 2001… 20 students!

This will be a struggle for BC schools already having difficulty finding enough teachers and classroom space to operate at the 2001 class size limits. The process of recovering the status quo of 16 years ago will take some time, but everything we know about quality education tells us this is not the place to stop. More resources for both infrastructure and personnel is necessary. Make no mistake that reducing class size is an expensive educational reform, but research suggests this will be money well spent.

Sandra Mathison is a Professor of Education at the University of British Columbia and Executive Director of IPE/BC.