Monday, March 23, 2009

The big yawn?

On Friday, Ontario Education Minister Kathleen Wynne released a working group's report on declining enrolment. The working group of nine has been studying the numbers on declining enrolment, meeting with groups across the province, researching how other provinces have dealt with the challenge and writing its recommendations for over a year now.
The report landed in the media with a big thud-- meaning you won't find much coverage of it out there.
The minister's immed
iate response was to say she might force school boards to offer up empty school space to other schools or public institutions before allowing the board to consider school closure as a response to declining enrolment.
Why is the cov
erage of this report like a tree falling in a forest that no one has heard?
Declining enrolment -- caused by the decline in Canada's birth and fertility rates -- is one of the largest challenges facing K-12 schools, particularly in provinces like Ontario where the majority of
school board dollars are based on per-pupil figures. Fewer bums in seats equals fewer dollars, period.
As the StatsCan chart at right indicates, the numbers don't lie. We're having fewer children later in life and that's having an impact on the number of little bums available to register in schools.
As the report states, some provinces have already tackled this, since they've been dealing with outmigration of their fertile demographic for almost a generation, if not longer. Others are provinces where smaller cities and rural areas are the predominant population base and thus dealing with small schools and multi-grade classes is the rule more than the exception. Ontario is becoming one of those places, with only the few school boards surrounding the Greater Toronto Area being the ones seeing any substantive growth in the school-aged population -- growth due to immigration, not really any increase in the birth rate amongst those who've been living in those communities for over a generation.
The Ontario report makes 21 recommendations for dealing with the impact of declining enrolment, touching on a wide array of policy and finance issues. Some of these recommendations, if adopted, are quite interesting. They all stem from a background of ensuring school boards make changes with regard to creating the best possible learning environment for students-- meaning a responsibility to ensure students are being taught in the best possible spaces, using the best possible resources so they can learn what they need to be successful.
Some of the recommendations:
- The Ministry of Education provide the public with comprehensive information about declining enrolment and its impacts
* This will help counter the perception the vast majority of the province is not experiencing a school-aged population decline.
- The Ministry of Education provide templates and funding to develop and accommodate school- or board-community partnerships
* Rather than just mandate shared use (see comment on Wynne's reaction above), this recommendation asks the province to help by providing draft legal agreements that school boards can use for shared-use situations. More boards would do this, even if mandated by regulation, if all they had to do was fill in the blanks on a template agreement.
- Funding for both classroom and administrative information technology be consolidated into a single special purpose grant. This grant should recognize the fixed nature of many information technology costs, including start-up and ongoing costs related to network infrastructure, as well as maintenance costs and costs related to computer and technical support staff
* This is HUGE. As the report explains, currently funding for computers, networking and IT support is a per-pupil based revenue stream. When the funding formula was largely written in the mid- to late-1990s, this may have made more sense than it does now, in the 21st century. Similar to the way the funding formula has been amended to ensure that every school is supported by having a full-time principal on-site and/or full-time secretarial support, the report's authors recommend the same modification for IT.

These are just a few snippets from the report -- stay tuned for more as boards deal with this report and the ministry actually responds to it.