Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Asking a leopard to change its spots

It's getting to the point that when I read things about those who challenge Catholic school boards on the instruments of how they administer faith-based schools, I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
Witness today's article in the Globe by Katie Hammer on Ontario Catholic boards forcing their students to take religious education credits as part of their high school studies. This in a world where high schools are open to all, regardless of whether they're part of a publicly funded Catholic school board or a public school board. There are no restrictions on enrolment in Catholic secondary schools, unlike for elementary schools in many boards that still require the child and/or one or both parents to be baptized Catholics.
The number of requests has increased since the court decision earlier this year that allowed a non-Catholic student to opt out of religious education courses at the Catholic high school he attends. As the Globe explains today, boards are turning down exemption requests from those students whose parents have (on their property tax forms) declared themselves to be Catholic school supporters. This was a distinction that mattered more when school boards set tax rates in each municipality -- today, it matters not a lick other than in principle since the education portion of a property tax bill is sent to the province and then doled out by the ministry.
Let's set something straight. Catholic high school religious education courses are not four years of Bible study. I could stand to be corrected since it's been 18 years since I had personal knowledge of this, but religion credits in Grade 9/10 may continue to be mostly Bible/Catholicity based. Back in the day, the Grade 11 credit was a world religions course (social sciences credit) and the Grade 12 credit was a "man and society" course. Our OAC course was a half-credit, most of which was volunteer hours that have since been replaced by the diploma requirements for the same service.
The Grade 11/12 credits are ones available to any student studying in Ontario at any high school. Catholic boards, as a measure of showing how they continue to instruct their students in matters of faith, make the two senior-level credits mandatory. The requests for exemptions in senior grades are not to be exempted from sitting down and rote-learning the Bible, chapter and verse.
For a system trying to defend itself against being dissolved, the response to requests for exemption is a pretty smart move by the Catholic boards. Your guess is as good as mine on whether it will succeed.
The boards are simply pointing out the contradictions in intent-- as a parent and taxpayer, making the conscious choice to declare oneself as a Catholic school supporter but then turning around and saying you do not want that same school system to continue to instruct your child(ren) in the very faith you've declared yourself to be. If Catholics supporting Catholic school boards stop wanting their schools to teach their kids about faith all the way to graduation, then the only valid reason for a faith-based publicly funded school system in Ontario begins to evaporate.
For the non-Catholics who attend Catholic high schools, I can't say I've understood how the earlier court case was successful either, but that's another post.
We can't keep asking the Catholic school system to change its faith to suit our changing mores and understanding of who should be able to do (or not do) what within those schools. As long as we keep supporting the full funding of a faith-based system, it's ridiculous to keep asking that system to stop instructing its students in its faith under certain circumstances.
Parents who send their kids to Catholic schools for whatever reasons who don't like the faith-based elements of what's in that school always have an easy choice -- pull your kids from the school and register them in public schools.
As for the rest of us, if we're really that uncomfortable with what a faith-based school system looks like, then work to stop funding it and work towards the establishment of a single publicly funded school system.
Don't keep asking the leopard to change its spots.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Is anyone dusting off the dance floor?

I'm a little surprised I've seen so little discussion, ruminating, etc. on this so far this summer.
Every single K-12 education-sector contract in Ontario expires on Aug. 31.
Why aren't we more people talking about this?
I don't want to sound naive on this matter. I'm well aware that in every round of negotiations known to us in the past 15 to 20 years, nothing serious gets tabled until well after the last agreement has expired. Preliminary discussions on what the discussions will be about along with notices of intent to bargain likely haven't even been have been sent out yet (see here, here, with a H/T to Caroline Alphonso) across Ontario, given it's summer and all. Negotiations are a dance and so far I don't see anyone on the dance floor or even pushing the dust mop around to get it ready.
However, that shouldn't stop more of my media colleagues. Should it?
Let's consider a few things, aside from the fact B.C. teachers are on the picket lines over many of the same issues that could rear their heads in Ontario in the year ahead.
  1. Bill 122 passed before the May election and it's now governing how the pending round of collective agreements will be negotiated. Which means a legislated and regulated series of central bargaining tables where all the big-money questions will be negotiated.
  2. With the Liberals' election as a majority government, sanity may prevail and we won't see a resumption of the silliness that happened with the fall 2012 byelections and Bill 115 in an attempt to win a single seat. However you also didn't see an enthusiastic, blanket endorsement of the Liberals in the 2014 election as happened in 2011 and 2007.
  3. Since re-election, the government has been quite clear (see its Metrolinx response) that no collective agreement will include more money. If there are wage and benefit increases, those amounts need be negotiated out of monies found elsewhere in the system.
  4. Declining student enrolment has not disappeared as a real factor-- while most boards are seeing small rebounds in their youngest grades, all will still feel the real impact of fewer students. Particularly within a four-year high school program. Despite over a decade of declining enrolment, education funding in Ontario has continued to grow. There will be caps on spending and part of that may include job losses and rationalization of programs and services to match lower student populations. We need to let go of the false assumption there will be no job losses in our schools -- within a per-pupil funding and allotment system, there's no way to avoid these changes when the number of pupils drops. This is already happening and if you don't believe me ask your closest high school teacher how many surplus "lines" they have at their school for September.
This is a quick list. There are many other things to take into consideration with this round. Fro example, ETFO was given back (sort of) the wage parity its officers pissed away in 2008-12.
Given how ugly contracts were for the 2012-13 school year, is Ontario up for a repeat of this in 2014-15?  What levers get moved in which direction to keep K-12 sector spending within the government's own stated caps while rationalizing the system (particularly in secondary schools) for continued declining enrolment? Are both sides prepared for a Sunshine List release in 2015 that will show the largest-ever number of educators earning over six figures?
We need to start talking about this and the sooner the better.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The problem with most single-system analyses

Saw this tweeted by a trusted source Sunday morning, but HuffPo published an op-ed by Green Party of Ontario leader Mike Schreiner on March 15 regarding merging Ontario's four publicly funded school boards into two.
As readers here would know, I support this, with the full disclosure I am the product of a Catholic school system. However since becoming a ratepayer in southwestern Ontario, I am an English public school system supporter (for whatever that's worth in a single-funder system).
Schreiner's POV in this latest piece hasn't changed since the last Ontario election. He's consistently been a single-school system supporter since taking the mantle of the GPO. The challenge, however, is that Schreiner leads with the financial argument. That argument in this case is based on a 2012 study by the Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods of Ontario Inc.
There are some assumptions in that report upon which the estimated $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion (my rounding) in annual savings are based that are false. They appear to be based on a presumption that many of the students currently in Catholic schools would leave the publicly funded system.
That's the only guess I have as to how the study identifies efficiencies of scale to the extent it does. It pegs $164.9 million in savings from the elimination of school board and governance grants if the province's Catholic district school boards were eliminated. This assumes the public systems taking over management and governance of the physical assets and students would be willing to have that added to their existing workloads.
I don't see that happening.
So you wouldn't see 100% of those governance and admin costs evaporate.
It pegs $169 million in student transportation cost savings-- by increasing walking distances across the province and the elimination of duplication. Again, I don't see the savings fully realized as school board transportation consortium shotgun weddings started taking place over five years ago and are pretty much fully implemented.
Which isn't to say some of the estimates presented aren't valid-- savings will happen in capital and facilities as we use the existing stock of school buildings more efficiently instead of having wide discrepancies between public and Catholic schools that lie within blocks of each other.
Where the financial argument falls apart is the economies of scale line, where it estimates $487.9K to $813.2K in annual savings.
If the number of students in the system remains stable after the merger of Catholic and public boards, the overall costs of running the system are not going to dramatically drop. Yes, there will be savings in some areas where there is duplication-- but overall you're not going to suddenly have 40% fewer principals or superintendents. The number of teachers and support staff would remain relatively static.
It surprises me neither party in this example has bothered to look at Quebec or Newfoundland and Labrador, where systems were merged. What sort of savings have materialized? You might find some concrete examples there instead of assumptions built on false premises.
It's an argument that side-steps the conversation that should be happening around publicly funded faith-based education in Ontario. Which is whether it should be publicly funded at all. Arguing it shouldn't be funded because of potential, flawed estimated savings is a weak foundation because those "savings" simply won't materialize to the stated degree should Ontario move to a single system.
Ontario is no longer part of a dominion where a minority of Christians need to have their faith protected from being extinguished by the majority of Christians. Those days have long passed-- defense of any faith should be a matter of instruction and practice within individual families and whatever congregation they choose to associate with, not a publicly funded educational system.
That -- and not money -- should be the No. 1 reason for a single system in Ontario. I've not yet heard a politician frame it in those terms, which is unfortunate because the other arguments only distract from what should be discussed.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Changes ahead

As faithful readers here will remember, I was laid off from my most-recent job at the Expositor in Brantford, Ont. in December after 28 months as that outlet's primary city hall reporter.
In January, I accepted an offer to work at the Brant News, a Metroland weekly newspaper based in Brantford-- the general manager and editor moved quickly to offer me a position within their organization that would begin with a maternity leave contract and then carry the potential for full-time, permanent employment within the chain. I was set to return to Brantford and covering city hall starting March 3.
On Feb. 21 however, I accepted another offer of employment with the Standard-Freeholder in Cornwall, Ont. Starting March 17, I will be the managing editor of this daily news organization, overseeing its newsroom and the digital and print content it produces.
It's another role taking me in a different direction than I'd anticipated over a decade ago when all I wanted to be was the best education reporter anywhere.
This topic is still a passion of mine, as is the sharing of clips and analysis of its issues and coverage elsewhere in the media. How I will manage this space is still somewhat unknown, but I hope to be able to continue to use it.

Three thoughts on Bill 122 committee hearings

Having read through the transcript of last week's committee hearing into Bill 122, there are only a few things that percolate to the surface for me as the legislation continues its move through the House.
The transcript is part of the bill's bundle of pages on the legislative website-- French-language skills will be useful as two of the deputations' remarks are in French as are a few of the questions asked afterwards. Kudos to the Globe and Mail and QP Briefing (owned by the Star) for having their reporters in the room. The focus of the Globe piece was heavy on conflict, of the potential for it even with this proposed bill in place.
With one exception (Clegg), I found the deputations' comments to be reasonable and pointed out the three things that percolated to the top for me.
  1. That Bill 122 enshrine the Crown as one of the parties in any provincial negotiations. Most every deputation spoke to how the Crown ultimately sets the terms of how this bargaining will look and feel like but doesn't define itself as a member at the table. Given the province, through its ministry and budget, funds the vast majority of the monies used by boards to pay their employees and run our publicly funded school systems, this appears as a glaring oversight. I don't know if its omission was an attempt to keep the Crown from being defined in any way as an employer around those tables-- but given the school board associations (for better or worse) represent their members and the unions represent the employees to be covered the people at the table with the money to make it all happen work for the Crown. It should be a defined member of those negotiations.
  2. That the central bargaining created by Bill 122 include all unionized employees who work within Ontario's schools. OSSTF, OECTA and CUPE spoke most strongly to these points, although they diverge slightly on the nuts and bolts of how each of the various smaller unions in the education sector could or should participate in central bargaining. Again, this is an oversight-- teachers' federations (who represent more than teachers) often steal the education-sector bargaining limelight. We in media tend to overlook and ignore the support workers, their contracts, their working conditions and such unless and until there's any job action. If central bargaining on key issues will be the law of the land for teachers' federations, then it should be so and include other unionized employee groups as well.
  3. What should be discussed locally and centrally? Bill 122 proposes the government/Crown make this definition. The unions all pointed out that in free collective bargaining, the first item for discussion is to decide what is to be discussed. I'm undecided on where to sit on this question. Given the sole-funder question, I see a day where it wouldn't be too far-fetched a premise to have central bargaining deal with 100% of education sector agreements. We're a long way from this, but Bill 122 is an important step. If school board associations become more structured and transparent, government remains accountable to its citizenry and the unions remain accountable to their members, then you have three equal partners making decisions that are consistently applied in every publicly funded school. Unless funding control were to return to local boards and unions de-amalgamated, there wouldn't be two equal partners at the table in local bargaining-- which in part was what happened from 1998-2002/3, when provincial table officers from headquarters were assigned to every district for bargaining to achieve provincewide objectives while school boards had no similar support.
All of the above, and anything else to be said about Bill 122 whether you agree with this assessment or not, is moot unless the bill actually makes it to royal assent. Given the larger chess pieces at play, I don't have the confidence that will happen before the spring budget which may lead to an election. Further, the government isn't out there pumping up the fact this is one of the key bills it wants to see passed before the next budget.
If left on the order paper, what happens in a post-election scenario? In a change of government scenario, how would the impending round of collective agreements be dealt with? If the Liberals are returned to office in whatever form (minority/majority), do they pick up 122 and re-introduce it with the goal of a quick passing?
Unless there are some big changes, the next Ontario election won't be about education, it will be about the Liberals' track record on other files. Neither opposition party has yet shed its timidity when it comes to challenging this government on its education track record in a way that will resonate with voters. Their final platforms will prove otherwise, but overall silence from the third party, countered with a pledge to halt implementation of full-day kindergarten from the official opposition are not going to make education the ballot question.
Clause-by-clause consideration is scheduled for March 11-12 to start March 5 In the midst of a few other things going on, I'll read through those transcripts and come back with any additional thoughts afterwards.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Bill 122 in committee

By the time I hit post on this, the Standing Committee on the Legislative Assembly will have begun its single day of hearings into Bill 122.
Looking to the agenda, the folks who've signed up to speak to legislators are mostly from the groups most affected by the bill-- unions representing those in the sector and school boards. Missing is the trustee / school board association for French-language Catholic schools in Ontario, though it may have submitted something to the committee in writing.
It's speaking in committee on Bill 122, but noting in my social feeds today that CUPE is reminding us they are angry the deals imposed under Bill 115 aren't being honoured by school boards.
The speaker who tweaked my curiosity is the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU). I don't know who represents every employee group across all 72 publicly funded boards, but I'm not familiar with OPSEU representing any employees in K-12 in the province. Please comment below with an example should I be wrong on this. (Note comments below on OPSEU's role in some boards)
I'll post some additional thoughts on this in the days ahead as the Hansard transcripts become available. Also quite curious on whether there are any media in the committee room and whether anyone cares outside of those speaking. I certainly hope so, given this bill will define labour relations for the next round of contracts and will set the board for the game of chess expected to start later this year.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Bums in seats means dollars in the bank

An increasing reality across K-12 in Ontario is school boards marketing themselves to potential students.
I've noticed it, not so subtly, in my own district where the public school board has ramped up its promotional budget and materials to tell potential students "they belong" in the public system. All social media accounts are being used to push out marketing statements to enroll more often than push out items to inform.
It's not seen too often for K-8 programs, but at the high school level the competition -- and yes, it's a plain-out competition for bums in seats -- is getting fierce.
Witness the two-step by the Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association on a promotional video for Catholic publicly funded schools featuring Mark Kielburger. He's a Catholic high school graduate, which is why the association had approached him in the first place. For some time now OCSTA has encouraged its member boards to highlight the Catholic graduate expectations, to differentiate its students from those who graduate from other schools. Highlighting Kielburger is a good example of that kind of promotion.
The association was called on the carpet by its public counterpart, whose spokesperson wasted no time in slamming OCSTA for crass marketing when they should be focused on working with their counterpart associations -- a pot/kettle sort of thing given many of the Ontario Public School Boards Association are engaging in the same sort of marketing. President Michael Barrett spoke of wasting time and public dollars on promoting one system over another, neglecting the fact his own members spend dollars doing the same things
The pitches are driven because parents and students can choose which school board to enroll in for grades 9-12 and each student brings with them per-pupil dollars. Post-1998, as per-pupil funding was implemented and Catholic school boards largely benefited from the formula (after, I would note, being forced to live off only residential property taxes from Catholic school supporters for decades) and the new school in most every community was the Catholic one.
In my own community, at one point, 25% of the incoming Grade 9 class at the local Catholic high school had come from public elementary schools. Why? Bigger school, newest facilities, better reputation academically. Despite what gets said in the midst of considering accommodation issues, parents and students tend to consistently vote with their feet to get the programs and facilities they want and need.
Declining enrolment -- and the largest cohort of students is now exiting high school -- has changed all this. Now Catholic school boards are more aggressively marketing themselves to maintain their student populations. Public school boards are responding in kind. It's an all-out battle, leading to another round of questioning the very existence of a publicly funded Catholic school system in Ontario.
For the record and in the interests of full disclosure as I've stated in the past, I am a graduate of a Catholic high school. That being said, I support a single publicly funded system administered according to language as has been successfully accomplished in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador.
Critics are treating the Catholic-school marketing as another reason why the system shouldn't exist-- but if those critics come from public school boards, then they're the pot calling the kettle black. As mentioned above-- an increasing number of boards are marketing from both sides of the secular barrier.
If we're ready to have a mature conversation about a single publicly funded school system then let's have that conversation, not start throwing spitballs over marketing campaigns.