Faced with progressive cutbacks in education funding in Quebec, the Sunnydale Park Elementary School in Dollard des Ormeaux, west of Montreal, reluctantly dropped the position of music teacher two years ago. But the school’s 430 students still receive
music training, because of their parents’ fund-raising talents. The home and school association collected enough money to pay a music specialist, Merrill Roth, to teach at the school one day a week. Roth’s paycheque is just one example of how parents across the coun-
try are funding services that moneystarved school boards cannot afford. In addition to salaries, they are paying for everything from computers to new classrooms and asphalt fill for playground potholes. According to Canadian Home and School and ParentTeacher Federation president Joan Mansfield of Montreal, parents’ groups now funnel more than $12 million into schools every year.
Not everyone is pleased with the trend. The problem with private funding, some education experts argue, is that it creates inequalities within the school system. Some teachers’ associations say that school boards that have been restricted by cutbacks are beginning to rely on parents to help subsidize the basic elements of education. As a result, the standard of education can vary from school to school, depending on the parents’ wealth and interest. At Northview School in Pointe Claire, Que., parents raised $7,000 last year. But, as home and school association president Carol Ohlin acknowledged, “The more you put into fund-raising, the more it takes responsibility away from the board.” Said Edward Hickcox, a professor of education administration at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE): “If it is worth doing, it is worth doing for all kids.”
The issue surfaced in Toronto last month when the city board of education told a group of parents that they should not collect voluntary donations to hire extra staff and pay for field trips. The parents, whose children attend public “alternative” schools with a variety of specialized curricula, argued that they had a right to spend money to improve their children’s education. But trustee Beare Weatherup countered, “It amounts to a form of extra billing.” He argued that fund-raising of any kind has no place in the educational system. Weatherup and other trustees want to avoid the kind of situation that arose last November in Alberta when a number of public schools took parents to court for nonpayment of fees for books and extra courses. And Harvey Weiner, president of the Quebec Association of Protestant teachers, said that teachers’ associations across the country have condemned school boards for tacitly relying on parents for educational basics. Added Weatherup: “We are not going to allow the privatization of the public school system.”
The issue is particularly acute in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, which have adopted back-to-basics curricula. There, school boards are learning to depend on parents to fill the gaps when core subjects squeeze out such programs as art and music. But the root of the problem goes beyond a shift
in curricula to general cutbacks in education spending, said Wilfred Brown, an education economist with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation. Over the past decade the share that public school education gets from provincial spending across the nation has declined by 27 per cent, but student enrolments have dropped by only 15 per cent. In some areas the situation is worsening. In January the Alberta government announced a freeze for provincial spending on public schools, and in February British Columbia pared another $42 million from an already lean ($661-million) budget for public schools.
The key objection that many educators have about fund-raising to fill the gap is that it depends largely on parents’ financial means—and whether parents have time to volunteer as fund raisers or even as teaching assistants. In affluent West Vancouver two parent groups raised more than $11,000 in an auction last November to buy computers and books for French classes at Hollyburn Elementary School. At Sunnydale Park, where Roth teaches music, 20 specially trained parent volunteers agreed to teach five programming classes a day during school hours. But not all participating parents are happy to see the situation continue. Said Rosemary Le Blanc, a home and school association spokesman in Riverview, N.B.: “We are tired of baking cookies to provide the educational necessities, equipment like Gestetners and paint for the walls, but we do it because we love our children.”
Beyond the risks of inequalities in the school system, some educators fear that parents do not always do what is best for their children. For one thing, they might hire unqualified people, said Kenneth Leithwood, a professor of curriculum at OISE. And at a time when school boards are laying off even teachers who have several years’ experience, teachers’ associations in British Columbia and Ontario are disturbed by the prospect of parents rather than > trustees selecting their children’s instructors.
Still, the scope of intervention from parents unwilling to compromise their children’s future seems likely to expand. Some parents’ organizations are considering seeking financial support from foundations and corporations. In such a case Weatherup and other concerned trustees would likely try to establish a legal limit on such donations to help fund their efforts in schools. But individual schools are reluctant to oppose the parents’ efforts. As Carole Osborne, acting principal of Sunnydale Park School, put it, “Without the parents, we couldn’t provide music any other way.” in Toronto.
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