Are we asking the wrong questions about school closures in our community? The ARC (Accommodation Review Committee) process has been well-crafted and proven effective in delivering its desired result. It has been used to devastating effects all across the province— giving desperate parents the illusory sense their voice matters—that a well-crafted set of arguments might change the outcome for their doomed school.
Each school’s ARC overseers have supplied its community participants with reams of information and data. Facility condition index. Demographic information. Utilization rates. Enrollment. Each has been selected and compiled to make the argument that certain schools must close, and others must be combined. Each document is meant to support the proposition that your child is better served by sitting on a bus for more than two hours every day than remaining in their current school.
Naturally, and I presume by design, the discussion around the ARC and in the broader community devolve quickly to a Darwinian competition about which schools should close and why. Inevitably this pits school against school and community against community. These debates will leave lasting marks.
But are we asking the right questions? Or, are we being conditioned to move toward the demise of our schools in an orderly and peaceful manner?
Here are a couple of questions I think should be answered before we close any more schools in the County, indeed anywhere in rural Ontario.
The first is, what is truly driving higher costs in public education? Is it really the cost to operate and maintain our rural schools?
In the 2012/13 school year, Ontario spent $25 billion on education in public schools—$8.3 billion more than was spent in 2003/04, a 50 per cent increase in a decade. A massive increase, despite a decline in enrollment in public schools in the province of 4.6 per cent over the same period. So where did this money go? Not on maintaining and operating rural schools.
The overwhelming driver of costs is compensation, according to a report by the Fraser Institute. In fact, three-quarters (75.1 per cent) of all education spending is on compensation. And 73.4 per cent of the enormous $8.3 billion increase, was spent on compensation which includes salaries, benefits and pensions.
According to the same report, renovation and new school spending also rose over the same period of declining enrollment, but these expenses represent less than 10 per cent of the cost of public education and that proportion has remained largely unchanged. Therefore closing rural schools won’t have a material effect in tempering rising education costs.
Then the question becomes: Why do it? In almost note-perfect Orwellian-speak, school board officials suggest that children on buses for hours and then running the smoking gauntlet each day to the K-12 school will serve students better. Better programming. More resources. Teenage mentors. Etc. Etc.
But is it true? Are bigger, centralized schools better than small schools? Will our children actually be better served in one massive school in Picton rather than in their community schools in Sophiasburgh and Bloomfield?
The research suggests the answer is no. According to research published in Education World, small schools do a better job of reducing the negative effects of poverty, they reduce violence, and increase parent involvement and student accountability.
From the report prepared by Craig Howley of Ohio University and Robert Bickel of Marshall University:
“In four separate studies of seven states, they repeatedly found that poor kids do better if they attend a small school. In fact, in the most recent four-state study, the correlation between poverty and low achievement was ten times stronger in larger schools than in smaller ones in all four states.”
Closer to home, the Ontario public school advocacy group, People for Education, examined the available research and concluded, “that small schools make excellent learning environments for students and that despite economies of scale, they are often cost effective because of their higher graduation rates.”
So, what’s going on here? What are we doing? Are we really willing to tolerate the prospect of our kids on buses for hours, toward a crowded school, so that they struggle unnoticed, to face a greater risk of violence and ultimately a lower chance of graduating? That is where the research points. Is this really what we want for our children?
We must ask more questions. And insist on answers. We must resist the forces that would shape and guide this debate away from the real issues. The provincial government is up for re-election next year. Let us insist they hear from rural Ontario. Let us demand they answer our questions.
Links to sources for this column are available below