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September 3, 2002

The Education Solution: Education Canada

Labour Day has come and gone yet again, and now hundreds of thousands of both students and education workers now forget the caloric excesses of this past weekend and get back to school. Some students are now heading off for university, ready to prepare themselves for a career, while others are still toiling away in the elementary and secondary school systems. These students have become the pawns in an ugly war recently here in Ontario. Apologies for the provincio-centric topic, but what follows could be applied anywhere.

In case you haven't been following, here's my half-assed distillation of what's been going on. What the fuss all boils down to is the fact that in a few significant school boards in Ontario, most notably Ottawa and Toronto, trustees refused to present a balanced budget and insist on running a deficit. Their reasoning is simple: the budget is insufficient to provide proper education.

Unfortunately, a deficit budget is contrary to certain laws, and thereby raised some pretty big red flags in the office of the Minister of Education, Elizabeth Witmer. In response to these deficit budgets, the trustees' powers of monetary management are stripped and a hired gun is brought in to forcibly balance the budget. Thus far, this strong-arm tactic has been used in Ottawa, and Toronto is looking like the next target.

So, the issue has now become whether a balance budget necessarily means that it's sufficient to provide proper education. More and more people are saying "no", including the trustees who have to come up with the budgets. Without the legal ability to run a deficit, what's a school board to do? This numerical protest that Ottawa and Toronto have done certainly turned some of the limelight on the subject, but it's a far cry from any sort of solution. However, I believe that there is one man in Canada who can be turned to for insight into how to turn this crisis around: the CEO of Air Canada, Mr. Rob Milton.

Stop laughing. No, really, I mean it! Shut up and lemme explain, already!

Most people will remember the oft-demonized Mr. Milton from his "180 Day Promise" ad campaign for Air Canada, promising to actually do something about the crappy service, lost luggage, and general crap that customers had to put up with in dealing with Air Canada. Personally, I'm not sure what happened with that, and I'm not sure I see a difference. Only Rob knows for sure.

Mr. Milton is also known for his ballsy move of starting up a brand-new airline company in the wake of September 11th's terrorist attacks last year, when most airlines were begging for bail-outs (Air Canada being no exception) and some simply rolling over and curling their legs in the air. Tango is Air Canada's budget-minded air carrier, and is what I assume to be Air Canada's response to WestJet's runaway popularity with air travelers.

Do you see the connection yet? If the haze of your Labour Day festivities hasn't worn off yet, I'll spell it out for you. In this corner we have an education system with funding that, by many accounts, is insufficient. In the opposite corner we have a CEO who can take the bull by the horns, and knows how to cut costs and still provide the basics. I think Elizabeth Witmer needs to have dinner with Rob Milton sometime soon.

I'm not exactly sure what would come of it, but I have a vague idea of how it could work. Right now parents and kids have two choices at the elementary and secondary levels. They can either enter the public school system, or opt for the uniformed Catholic (a.k.a. Separate) school system. (Third and fourth options - private school and home schooling - are being ignored here, although they are legitimate, if a bit less than mainstream.) What I see happening is yet a 3rd option being presented to families. You can go to an Education Canada school!

"What is an Education Canada school?" you may ask. Simply put, it's school without all the frills and costly overhead. Students will still learn what they need to, but all the fat has been trimmed. What does that mean? Well, perhaps larger class sizes in some instances. Maybe they'd get by with less teachers, but more educational assistants directing class. It's conceivable that student teachers could play a vital role in Education Canada, with the benefit going two ways. Classroom space may be leased on a year-by-year basis, or might simply use space that isn't used efficiently during work hours on weekdays - churches, perhaps?

My mother-in-law told me that on Tango flights they don't serve you lunch. Instead, you have the option of buying a sandwich, drink, or snack. Otherwise, you can pack your own and brown bag it to your destination. I can see classrooms in Education Canada schools being the same way. For example let's look at a typical high school chemistry class. Normally, there would be a Bunsen burner on every table, chemicals for all, and lots of test tubes, Erwinmeyer flasks, and petri dishes to use. In an Education Canada classroom, however, only the teacher (or "lab study director" or "science tutor") would have all the equipment necessary. If you didn't feel like spending the money to see your own white vapour produced when mixing two chemicals, you could simply watch the demonstration at the front of the classroom. However, if you thought it vital to do it yourself to see how it works, you could either buy or rent the equipment necessary, and pay a small materials fee for the gas for the Bunsen burner and the chemicals needed.

In biology you could buy a frog to dissect. Art class would see you either purchase the materials or bring them from home. Physical education would be uniform-free, but would require you to pay a small equipment charge unless you can provide your own basketball or soccer ball, as the season dictates. Smart families will team up and each buy one or two different balls, and all share when the time comes. Classes with required material like English literature or math texts would give you the choice of buying new, renting for the year, or buying used out of their rental inventory. No resource would be wasted, and the students and parents could decide for themselves what was really necessary to own versus borrow or rent, and could perform their own cost-benefit analysis.

Obviously, there would have to be some changes done to accommodate this. Teachers would no longer be able to pull curriculum out of their hats from time to time, as they would not have the resources available to wing it. Lists would have to be sent home with each student weekly or monthly to let them know what materials are necessary for participation in the following weeks, including what is mandatory and what is optional, as well as what can be purchased at school and its associated price.

I've mentioned an awful lot of "additional costs" associated with an Education Canada school. Lab supplies, texts, art materials - is this really going to cost any less? The counterpoint to all this incremental spending would have to be the reduced tax burden on parents that elect to send their kids to Education Canada schools. There would have to be a proven savings for this to even be considered from the outset, which relies on the graces of MPP Witmer understanding Mr. Milton's vision of cost cutting going hand-in-hand with basic yet quality service. It may happen, it may not. If we wait long enough there will be a different Minister of Education

It is entirely possible that Education Canada schools could become even better equipped than our public schools. In an area that is sufficiently well-to-do, it's conceivable that parents and students will opt to shell out for every option imaginable, and demand more to boot. Suddenly a cost-cutting measure becomes a feature-laden extravaganza, with all the students benefiting.

Will MPP Witmer and CEO Milton ever meet? Unlikely. Will any Education Canada schools open up in the near future? I somehow doubt it. Will there ever be an end to education funding squabbles? Heh heh heh.... Now THAT's funny.


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