Privatizing Public Education in Ontario

Standing up for Public Education in Ontario

By G. Carothers - Winter 2010.

We are currently at a crossroads with public education in Ontario. With the creeping effect of privatization policies that see provincial government cuts to schools we must ask ourselves what this means for the future of public education in Ontario. It is the choice of a parent whether or not they wish to put their child in a private school. This however does not obligate public authorities to fund it.

Here is the center of the debate. The privatization of education in Ontario would ultimately affect the commons negatively. Privatizing education would create a polarizing effect where children are separated by social class, ethnicity and values. Cuts to funding have already begun the “corporatization” of our schools where partnerships with corporations are perceived as necessary to close funding gaps. This kind of relationship ultimately takes power and influence away from the commons in terms of how and what children learn and empowers big business. Standardized test scores are used as a marketing vehicle rather than a tool for learning in the current system and test results are directly linked to how schools are funded. This causes schools to focus on naturally high-achieving students while leaving the rest behind. Finally, public education is a vehicle for defeating poverty as it empowers people from lower socio-economic backgrounds to rise up and contribute to society as an adult by nurturing their potential and giving them access to resources that they would not otherwise have in a private system.

In large part Canadian values are built on diversity. This includes diversity of social class, ethnicity, and religion. An advantage to our current system allows for children from a variety of backgrounds to learn together and learn from each other. These values will undoubtedly translate into life skills as adults as well. However, privatization tends to work against these values of diversity. This can include the idea of achieving privatization by design from a perspective of theology (religion), where schools are privately funded with an education and value system concentrated around a particular faith or religion.

We already have this in the public system in the form of Catholic schools, but the citizens of Ontario made it clear in the last provincial election that they are not prepared to publicly fund other religion-based schools, which was the major platform of the Ontario PC party lead by John Tory. Although sincere, this idea is misguided as individuals, congregations, lobbies and so forth – see public education as a tool of Satan, and see public schools as dens of iniquity that are value-less, at best, and at worst, a threat to individual salvation (Robertson, 2005).

Part of the push towards having schools based on common-ethnicity is the concept that students will be more comfortable by learning in the presence of others that look, speak and in some cases dress like they do. While being in a comfortable and homogeneous environment they can attend schooling that will focus on their cultural history, background and contemplate their contemporary place in the world, thereby giving them an appreciation and a sense of belonging from a cultural-perspective. We have already seen this ideology manifest itself in the public system in the form of the first afro-centric school in the Toronto School Board. While this approach is also well intentioned, it is also misguided and is partially a result that in the face of a rising immigrant population there is a profound lack of smooth integration into the public system.

One Canadian study (Berthelot, 2005) estimates that between 2001 and 2017 the growth of the immigrant population will be somewhere between 24% and 65% and that almost 85% of this growth will be accounted for by visible minorities. In comparison, the non-immigrant population is expected to rise between 4 and 12%. Newcomer students have unique needs and challenges in their integration in their early years and funding cuts have put this group at a disadvantage. The largest of these issues is perhaps ESL support for immigrant students. There are schools in Ontario where over 90% of students require ESL support, and more than 30% of the 100,000 immigrants that arrive in Ontario every year are school-aged (Kidder, 2009). Most of these immigrants settle in urban areas in the province and the result is that in municipalities such as Markham, Toronto and Mississauga, over 50% of the population are immigrants.

Literary test results show that we are not doing a good enough job at giving these students the ESL support that they need and that more funding is needed as we continue to lean heavily on immigration to support our population growth. In regards to the Grade 10 Literary test, advocates continue to raise concerns that with a pass rate of test of 59% in 2008, the test contains colloquial language and knowledge that is difficult for new English-speakers to understand, particularly as they are not allowed to use dictionaries to translate (Kidder, 2009). Overall, we need a public system that reflects our values of diversity as Canadians and gives proper support to ensure a smooth transition for immigrants and allows all students – no matter their background – to go to school and learn together and from each other in a heterogeneous environment. We need to contest school segregation which will continue to gain momentum with increased private school enrolment.

Editor's Note: We should also mention that there is increasing demand for online summer schools and online universities, especially for parents who want their children to be studying year round and older students who want to study whilst working.

Ontario Education & Schools

Corporatization of Education

A disturbing trend in the face of a flawed public funding formula has been corporate sponsorship, also known as the “corporatization” of public schools. This is where school administrators engage in partnerships with corporations that add some degree of visibility to students of a corporate brand in exchange for a steady flow of funding. This partnership over time causes schools to depend on this funding to operate, thereby allowing corporations to gradually demand more conditions and direct more marketing initiatives towards students – some of which are not so subtle. This strategy is also known as privatization by stealth (Robertson, 2005).

Some examples include: Future Shop, Coca-Cola and Tim Horton’s. Future Shop has engaged in a partnership with one school where it has provided computer equipment. The company also requires the computer room to be painted with the grey and red colours that the company’s brand is recognized for. Future Shop has considered future partnerships based on the proximity of a given school to a Future Shop Store.

In the case of Coca-Cola it is striking how frequently schools can adopt the language, values and practices of their corporate partners. In the Robertson article, she tells of a school principal that told her he no longer viewed his “partner”, Coca-Cola, as a corporation, but as a member of the family. The principal handed out free Coca-Cola t-shirts to the kindergarten class because he wanted them to believe that they were ‘The Real Thing’ (a reference to the latest Coca-Cola tag line “you know when it’s real”).

In the case of Tim Horton’s, there is actually a school in one of the poorer areas of Nova Scotia that is in named “Tim Horton’s High School”. It has amenities that most schools in the area do not have and parents understandably consider it a blessing in their neighbourhood. Corporations use these opportunities as soft advertising for students and are also slowly starting to influence curriculum as some schools are opting for more studies based on business books which they read for professional development.

There is also a push for what is coined “investment in education” as a movement to privatize education by The Investor Learning Center in partnership with the Government of Ontario. This company is financed by the stock exchanges and its mandate is to enhance Canadian’s appreciation for investment. This company says that educating kids on investment helps them to embrace change. The Investment Learning Center gets to send their message to students on a limited basis and this initiative and the government pays for this service. What kind of change specifically are we teaching students to embrace? It could be managing their future portfolios or perhaps how they will want to fund their future education or their own children’s education down the road. The corporatization of education is about slowly integrating education with the market. The end goal by design then becomes profit as opposed to equal learning opportunity and teaching students to be good citizens.

Fundraising Vs. Special Services

In the face of huge gaps in the funding formula there is an increased dependence on school fundraising. These initiatives are used to fund basic supplies such as: physical education equipment, library books, computers, and the arts. In recent years many school boards have changed their fundraising policies so that it allows for funding of capital projects to recognize corporate and private donors – with signage, naming rights and (in the Future Shop case) paint colours (Kidder, 2009).

The drive for fundraising is ultimately another cause of school polarization in terms of social class, as the less affluent areas have the schools with less revenue as a result of fundraising and thus have fewer supplies, programs and buildings that reflect the care and importance of the work going on the inside. The money parents raise cover an extremely wide range with the top 10% of fundraising schools raising the same as the bottom 72% with the average amount increasing steadily over the years (Kidder, 2009). Preliminary estimates for 2008-09, which forecast total school-generated funding shows that on average $301 per student and $117,500 per school, amounting to 3.1% of operating funding throughout the province (Mackenzie, 2009). In my view the community should not be responsible for raising money for basic supplies for school operation such as gym equipment and library books and needs to be addressed in the funding formula. Robertson says that we should start calling fundraising what it really is – user fees, tolls, head taxes, or depending on how you look at it, deterrent fees.

The use of standardized test scores has become the central tool in evaluating student success in the public system. These tests have ultimately become a marketing vehicle as opposed to a tool for learning. School income is directly linked to the number of smart kids taking the test, which is also known as a market-based system (Berthelot, 2001). With this system we end up with schools where everyone looks like each other and schools get tagged as being good or bad schools based on standardized tests. The focus has thus shifted towards attracting naturally high achievers from a desirable socio-economic background and cutting funding for programs such as special education. Special education supports cover a wide range, from classroom teaching techniques, to specialized equipment and in some cases, specialized classes for all or part of the day. Currently students can get special education support without a formal assessment.

A recent report by Ontario’s Auditor General found that almost one-third of students receiving special education services had not been properly identified (Kidder, 2009). This is an example of how there is little attention given to planning and execution of special education programs and how the focus is clearly on the high-achieving and thus “low-maintenance” students. Nearly three-quarters of Ontario schools have students waiting to be assessed by school board psychologists. Parents that can afford the costs of over $2,000 can pay privately for an assessment and can essentially allow them to jump the cue and give them a legal right to special education for their children (Kidder, 2009). Legal entitlements to appropriate special education services under the Education Act make it difficult for boards to avoid making the required additional expenditures to meet demonstrated individual needs (Mackenzie, 2009).

Some would argue that the best way to service special education is through segregation, where students learn in smaller classrooms where they can receive more individual attention. There is research however that argues that mixed-ability classes best achieve scholarly achievement across a single age group (Berthelot, 2008). Such classes maximize progress among the weaker students without adversely affecting the progress of the better ones.

On the other hand, segregation broadens the gap. The result is that those that have less, gets less (Berthelot, 2008). A class made up of weaker students tends to also have more interruptions and more frequent discipline interventions and the climate is in fact less conducive to learning. Instead of standardized tests, student performance at the secondary school level should be based on their grades. If you pass, you move on, if you do not, you’re held back. This more accurately reflects the realities of post-secondary education and ultimately the workplace. Although a secondary school diploma is the basic end result of education in the public system, it is not enough in today’s economy to ensure prosperity. The reality is that we need to require students to adjust their attitudes and set higher expectations for themselves so they may continue to achieve after their secondary school education is complete.

Finally, public education is a vehicle for defeating poverty. We know that the chances of the most poor are directly affected by streaming children into different schools and different classes. Inequalities in education have serious lifelong consequences. Education is the major determinant of social class and income in later life (Berthelot, 2008). Schools can do a lot to reduce these inequalities both in their organization and in their practices. We know for example that inequalities are made worse the earlier the process of selection begins. It is really a change in attitude that is necessary as the countries that have made most progress towards equality in the school system are also those that have succeeded in reducing educational inequality and in improving living conditions of poor families (Berthelot, 2008).

It is worth repeating Gerald W. Bracey’s remark that poverty resembles gravity. Gravity affects everything you do on the planet. So does poverty. It gets in the way of the full exercise of your fundamental rights and is fully synonymous with exclusion and discrimination. But unlike gravity, poverty is not inevitable.


The privatization of education in Ontario would ultimately affect the commons negatively. Privatizing education would create a polarizing effect where children are separated by social class, ethnicity and values. Cuts to funding have already begun the corporatization of our schools where partnerships with corporations are perceived as necessary to close funding gaps. Standardized test scores are used as a marketing vehicle rather than a tool for learning in the current system and test results are directly linked to how schools are funded. Finally, public education is a vehicle for defeating poverty. It is key to limit school choice and distribute students among them fairly and equitably across classrooms. Public funding must be increased to bring parity between schools.

Educational inequalities fly in the face of the idea of democracy itself which is why it is so important that we stand up for equal opportunity in public education.


Berthelot, Jocelyn. “Education and the Common Good”. Edited and translated by David Clandfield. Our Schools/Ourselves. 17, no.6, (Fall 2008): 101-126.

Kidder, Annie, Carol Rak, Gay Stephenson, Jacqui Strachan, Jonathan Scott. “Wanted: A Renewed Vision for Public Education”, People for Education Annual Report on Ontario’s Public Schools December 2009. [journal on-line]; available from:; Internet; accessed March 15, 2010.

Mackenzie, Hugh. “No Time for Complacency: Education Funding Reality Check”, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives November 2009. [journal on-line] available from:; Internet; accessed April 1, 2010.

Robertson, Heather-Jane. “Saying No to WEM (World Education Market)”, Coalition for Public Education May 2001. [video on-line]; available from:; Internet; accessed March 20, 2010.

Robertson, Heather-Jane. “The Many Faces of Privatization”, Public Education: Not for Sale II February 2005. [journal on-line]; available from:; Internet; accessed March 5, 2010.

Editor's Note

Why do parents keep forgetting there's a third option? Its called private after school tutoring. All the benefits of a public education and the extra edge a private tutor provides.

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