The Supreme Court of Canada has opened a Pandora’s box for public school boards by finding that a British Columbia school district discriminated against a dyslexic child when, during a financial crisis, it closed a special-education centre that provided him intensive help in learning to read. From here on, schools, school boards or provinces could be forced to bleed other programs to meet court-ordered educational standards for special-needs students.
The court appears to have been blind to the practical effects of its ruling. How could those effects be anything but massive after the court perhaps unwittingly defined adequacy, or “meaningful access” to education, in a way that few if any school boards meet? “Realistically, we don’t have the supports we need in every single school,” a Toronto principal said after the ruling, mentioning a lack of psychologists, social workers and special-needs assistants.
The court would have a case if Jeffrey Moore’s special needs had been ignored, but they emphatically were not; he received half-hour, one-on-one sessions three times a week with a learning assistance teacher, and two 40-minute sessions with a volunteer tutor, in Grade 1. A psychologist later recommended he receive more intensive help at a special centre run by the North Vancouver school district. But then the district closed the centre. The Supreme Court, noting that the district kept an outdoor education program open in spite of its financial difficulties, found that it had illegally discriminated. Is it the court’s business to choose a school district’s programs, or prescribe the required intensity of extra help?
The court’s definition of adequacy is stunningly open-ended. A psychologist had said the centre’s intensive help would be beneficial; to the court, that meant it was required. By that standard, anyone with a child who is autistic, developmentally delayed, suffering from anxiety or depression or a myriad of other diagnosed difficulties, would have a claim on their public school for intensive services. Would a child too anxious to attend school benefit from (and therefore need) daily home visits from a tutor? How many children with behavioural problems would benefit from or need a full-time personal aide?
It makes the court’s unanimous ruling more out of touch that the boy’s public education unfolded between 1991 and 1994, during and after a recession marked by across-the-board restraint, and finally, the overcoming of Canada’s deficit. Many political choices went into those years, and similar choices await today; governments, accountable to voters, should be the ones making those choices. The court overstepped its authority.