Stealing our lunch money from poor kids

I write this cautiously because it is not my preference to call people out on their actions or the values they hold. Still this is an election year, and candidates must be prepared stand on their record.

But I hope to find common ground here, as well.

This week, the Toronto public school board trustees on the Program and School Services Committee had a chance to do the right thing. They didn’t.

Asked by the Inner City Advisory Committee (ICAC) to commit more resources to the poorest students, they balked.

The motion from ICAC, a formal body of the Board, calls for a higher proportion of the provincial Learning Opportunity Grant (LOG) to be committed to the poorest students and the poorest schools in the Board.

The ask was small, compared to what is transferred from the province through the LOG. ICAC’s motion sought a commitment that 22% of the LOG (just over one out of every $5 of the grant) actually be spent on our most vulnerable students. The range of targeted programs extends for several paragraphs in the motion.

Among two of the lead objectors, Trustees Josh Matlow and Micheal Coteau asked, what would happen to all the other students, those who weren’t poor if these funds were so committed? Indeed, Trustee Chris Bolton had made similar seemingly petty objections when the Learning Opportunity Index was revised, after it turned out that schools within his own ward would not receive as many additional resources because they were no longer identified as among the neediest. It reminds me of the old snackfood ad where one hunter asks another for a potato chip. The happy muncher huffs, “If I give one to you I will have to give one to everyone,”  waving his hand over the tundra. It’s a liberal logic I struggle to understand.

To be fair, Trustee Campbell also chose to vote against the ICAC/LOG motion, citing, instead, worries about the three-year financial commitment, and even Trustee Dandy questioned how the needs of poor students in middle class schools would be addressed (but she voted for the motion after all).

And the motion failed. (While a few friends gave me a long list of reasons for the political nuances among the trustees, it’s hard not to notice that the issue split along gender lines: Cathy and Maria (and Sheila who couldn’t vote) ranged against Michael, Josh, John and Chris (who also couldn’t vote). )

But if I work it through, Trustees Matlow, Coteau, and Bolton were reacting eminently reasonably, within a ward-based election system. And, it is too easy an answer to dismiss their views as the short-sighted or parochial actions of small-time politicians.

For, in at least two previous years (2007, 2009), the full Board has voted to protect funding to students in its poorest schools. This is a fight that parents and activists have fought in every budget round since the early 1990s, alongside their trustees.

The ICAC motion was felled because, in its current state, the LOG has a terrible shortcoming. (See More below for a description of the LOG.) The LOG is “unsweatered,” that is it may be spent as the Board chooses. So, in actuality, only a small undetermined percentage of the funds reach the students for whom it is targeted. It is an exact parallel to the situation Social Planning Toronto found in its 2005 report when it looked at how ESL funds were spent (or not) on English as a second language learners. Instead, the Board uses these funding streams to cover other financial gaps, such as the rising costs of heating and teachers’ salaries.

In sum, school trustees across the province are left with the narrow choice of funding the vulnerable or balancing the budget – something they are required to do by law. Another set of TDSB trustees will face this same hard dilemma again this week when the ICAC motion is likely to be raised at the Board’s budget and AFA committee meetings.

So, agreed, there is no malfeasance in the actions of Trustees Matlow, Coteau and the others. They are striving valiantly to meet their legal obligations.

But the school board’s trustees have gotten snookered by the provincial Ministry.

The Ontario government gets a lot of mileage out of saying that is has dedicated increasing millions of dollars to poor and marginalized kids through the LOG and other poverty reduction strategies. The funds are handed over to other orders of government (municipal and schools boards) to be used for this great good. Fabulous P.R.

The Ontario government wants every student to have a quality education. Some students need additional help from their school in order to do their best.

The Learning Opportunities Grant provides funding to school boards to help students who may be at greater risk of not achieving their educational goals.

And so, then, school board and trustees are left to do the dirty work, to pinch the money from wherever they can, to make up for provincial funding shortfalls.

As Mel Hurtig’s book described the dilemma of poverty, should the Board “pay the rent or feed the children?” Should the Board run programs for poor kids or keep the lights on in the building?

But this is a discussion about some who have and some who don’t. It’s time we stopped stealing our lunch money from poor kids.

The evidence, the economics and the politics all line up behind the value of investing in poor kids. As I argued in earlier posts on the Learning Opportunity Index, doing so brings greater returns even than in students from middle or high-income families. And where there is concentrated poverty, a greater investment is required and greater learnings emerge.

A large body of research supports this. At the local level, TDSB’s recent evaluation of its own Inner City Model Schools show students’ being streamed out of special education classes and academic grades rising a full grade point, at even the worst school. The additional funds TDSB trustees provided proved the power of investing in kids.

So, yes, spending the LOG on the use for which it is given may well hurt other kids and the broader school system. Salaries do have to be paid, buildings heated. And, yes, higher income parents may pick up and move out their children of a divested public school system. These are real dangers that the trustees must consider.

But that is a vision with little faith in the Canadian ideal of fair play. I believe we are better than that, that we will agree to share the pain, to instead make other hard choices, to agree to do the right thing.

I believe we can demand a school system that doesn’t require we poach off the poorest among us. In this, our values must trump our accounting.

Declaration of conflicts of interest:

1) I am a former co-chair of the Inner City Advisory Committee from which the motion came.

2) I have agreed to act as Chief Finance Officer for the incumbent trustee in my ward, Cathy Dandy.

I based this post partly on my remarks to the Program and School Services Committee on the evening of Wednesday May, 2010.

In March, the provincial government announced that “the Learning Opportunities Grant will be restructured so that the prevalence of low income in a board’s community plays a greater role in determining funding levels.” In essence, they are following the same course of action taken by the Toronto District School Board when it removed a few demographic variables, such as immigration status and housing form, and added stronger measures of poverty.

People for Education explains the LOG simply in a media release as follows:

The original purpose of the Learning Opportunities Grant was to provide extra funding
to boards with a high proportion of students-at-risk.  It was to be granted to boards
based on the percentage of families within their jurisdiction who:

  • fall under the Low Income Cut-Off, or
  • are recent immigrants, or
  • have low parental education levels, or
  • who have Aboriginal status, or
  • are headed by single parents.

…Many preventative measures and remedial programs intended to be funded
by the Learning Opportunities Grant:

  • lower pupil/teacher ratios, educational assistants, adapted curriculum, tutors, and expanded kindergarten;
  • counsellors, social workers, early assessment, mentoring, orientation and life skills, parenting classes, home/school linkages, stay-in-school and school re-entry programs;
  • augmented literacy and numeracy programming, intensified remedial reading programs, and summer school programs;
  • breakfast/lunch programs, extracurricular activities, before and after-school programs, and recreation and sports activities; and
  • homework help, computer-aided instruction, arts and culture programs and outdoor education.

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2 Responses to “Stealing our lunch money from poor kids”

  1. We should offer top education to all children regardless of there families income.

    Like

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