Who Monitors Education in Ontario?

Trustees have a fundamental duty to rebuild the essential democratic linkages between citizens and board employees, who are in essence public servants. How to do that, is a fundamental question to all those that aspire to elected office.

Four Questions Ottawa Citizens Should Ask Before Voting for Their New School Trustees

Education is political and to forget this can lead to fundamental problems on how the system is run and managed in Ontario and other jurisdictions across the country.

In an excellent post this week, Four Questions Ottawa Citizens Should Ask Before Voting for Their New School Trustees, Dr Dragos Popa from the University of Ottawa has laid out four challenges for people running as public trustee in the 2018 Municipal elections. It would be a very good idea for all candidates to read this post and come up with clear answers to his challenges.

The public takes education for granted in this province. Unless you have a child in the system and even if you do have a child in the system, very few people have any sense of how public education is managed.

Even at the provincial level, there seems to be very little political will to seriously look at governance issues in public education. It seems that politicians and the public, in general, have surrendered up public scrutiny of the system to school board officials mainly because education is best left up to the experts.

This is a mistake and can lead to serious consequences. Dr Popa correctly points out that schools are nowhere nearly as ‘user-friendly’ as they should be. There is not the sense of public accountability that is more in evidence at the different levels of government. School officials are able to act with impunity because they know their actions are seldom challenged in the forum of public opinion.

To be fair, our education politicians are at a disadvantage. Years ago under Mike Harris, public education trustees salaries were discontinued, replaced with an honorarium as low as $5000.00 a year (The Fewer Schools Boards Act and the Toronto District School Board: Educational Restructuring 1997- 2003). School authority trustees are paid an honorarium at the same rate as was paid on December 1,1996 (Good Governance Guide, Ontario Public School Boards’ Association).

The problem with this is that politicians paid an honorarium cannot be expected to put in the time necessary to act as independent arbiters of school board staff policies and decisions. When it comes to governance issues in Ontario they simply do not play an effective role.

This may sound overly harsh, but it is not a criticism of the people who basically act as volunteers in the management of education in Ontario. I have worked as an unpaid board member before and I know that over time, a board member will become a ‘captive’ of management staff, the people responsible for supplying board members with the information they need to do their jobs.

This is a problem. Trustees are at best part-time employees of their school boards while the people they are charged with monitoring are full-time officials charged with maintaining a system that largely benefits these officials.

There is little public accountability in this system and there seems to be little interest in changing this dynamic. In fact, in a Globe and Mail article by Caroline Alphonso written in 2014 and updated in 2017, attempts by public school trustees in several school boards to raise their honorariums were reversed by the provincial government (Ontario orders school board trustees to cancel pay raises).

This leads me back to the original post by Dr Popa. He is correct in offering up important questions for new trustees to consider before the election, but do we have a system that actually encourages the necessary independence to actually challenge a system that is no longer accountable?

Is this a system that is truly public and accountable? Can we do better than this?

 

The Education Corporation

For me, one of the most interesting books has been The Corporation. I read it years ago and it still sticks with me. The Youtube version of chapter one gives a good summary of some of the main ideas behind the book. A synopsis of the book includes the following:

One hundred and fifty years ago, the corporation was a relatively insignificant entity. Today, it is a vivid, dramatic and pervasive presence in all our lives. Like the Church, the Monarchy and the Communist Party in other times and places, the corporation is today’s dominant institution.

The Corporation website

This is a really interesting study and I have thought for a long time that its analysis needs to go beyond businesses and should be extended to the traditional school system.

It is interesting when you take a look at their website that they are working hard to get their film into 1000 schools. I think it should be shown in schools, it is a great social commentary on how our society is currently structured.

Will any educator make the connection that apart from the pursuit of profit, there is little that separates the modern corporation from the traditional school board?

Probably not. We like to judge corporations as somehow a bit impure because they are motivated by profit and the wishes of their stockholders. I would argue that traditional school boards are motivated very much the same way as the corporation. It is simpler to call school boards what they are – education corporations.

The main motivator for the corporation is always to act in its own interests, to ensure its own survival. All actions are then justified because the corporation answers only to its shareholders.

The education corporation is in some ways worse – it likes to believe that it serves a higher purpose. This is especially true for Catholic school boards in Ontario where I live. Somehow saying that you are a Catholic school board gives license to all sorts of hypocritical actions.

Can we say we apply these great principles to the people who work in our schools?

Education corporations can be just as cruel and unfeeling as any modern-day corporation. It is very easy to find examples where people in powerful positions have treated others with less power in truly shameful ways. Generally speaking, the people who are being cruel justify their actions in the only way that makes sense to them – what they do they do in the best interests of the school board. They may give other justifications, but it comes down to their need to demand compliance and stay in power.

Unlike the business corporation, however, the education corporation does not answer to anyone. It could be said that there are public trustees who can call them to account, but at least in Ontario, trustees are underpaid officials who are totally captured by the senior staff that they depend on for information. They do not have the time or the resources to act as a counterbalance to superintendents and directors who really hold the power in the education corporation.

This allows for all sorts of abuse to happen. At the school level, poor administrators are simply moved to a new and sometimes bigger school when their actions become intolerable to a local community of teachers and parents. At the school board level, when senior administrators act poorly, there is no consequence, they are free to act with impunity.

There is the beginning of a climate change in our society. Only a few months ago it was acceptable for men (mainly) to use their power to oppress and abuse the women who worked for them. This bevaviour is no longer acceptable and this is a very good thing.

Will we ever get to a point in our society when those who abuse their power in other ways will be called to account? I hope so. Abuse of power in any form for any reason should always be seen as unacceptable.