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Margaret Wente

Margaret Wente

MARGARET WENTE

Abolish the school boards Add to ...

“In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he created school boards.” – Mark Twain

Talk about dysfunction. The Toronto District School Board is a prime-case study. By all accounts, it’s a rat’s nest of harassment, backbiting, favouritism, bullying, fear, self-dealing and mysterious payments. One trustee was charged with forcible confinement after a run-in with the director. The director has been accused of obfuscation and obstruction. Other people have been accused of misdirecting charitable funds. The last chair of the board left amid a cloud of murky dealings with a Chinese entity called the Confucius Institute, and the last director resigned amid charges of plagiarism.

Governance and human-resource nightmares aren’t the only problems. The TDSB owns dozens of half-empty schools and surplus property that it refuses to sell off. At the same time, the new full-day kindergarten classes mandated by the province are crowded and chaotic. The union fleeced the board for years by charging exorbitant rates for maintenance and repairs. (One notorious example: $143 to install a pencil sharpener). No wonder Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government has ordered an inquiry to get to the bottom of the mess.

Well, plus ça change! It seems like only yesterday that a shocking auditor’s report, ordered by the government of the day, blasted the TDSB for being “misguided and dysfunctional” and desperately in need of a shake-up. (Actually, it was 2002.) Trustees were enraged by the criticism. One of them lashed back, fuming that the report was “an assault on what we were elected to do.” Her name was Kathleen Wynne.

Some people say that the TDSB, which has a $3-billion budget and more than 600 schools to run, is just too big to function. But its real problem is that it has lost its reason to exist. Like other school boards across Canada, it’s no longer responsible for taxation, education policy or union negotiations. Provincial governments do all that now. As education critic Malkin Dare says, “Virtually their only function is to get blamed by the provincial government when things go wrong.”

Which raises a good question: Who speaks for the public in education? Back in the days of the one-room schoolhouse, that was easy. The local community built the school, hired the teacher, put her up and paid her directly.

But as education grew universal, more urban and more costly, “the public” became just one constituency among many. By the 1970s, big urban school boards were no longer in the hands of parents. Many of them – especially Toronto’s – moved under the control of left-leaning reformers who viewed the education system as a way of alleviating poverty, inequality and the other ills of capitalist society. For years, the progressives were implacably opposed to any measurement of student outcomes. They still exert a strong influence in provincial education bureaucracies today.

Left with nothing much to do, institutions tend to go astray. Maybe that’s what happened to the TDSB, which has been obsessed in recent years with education fads and equity but has been unable to prevent Grade 6 math scores from falling off a cliff. The place has been such a mess for so long that it should be put out of its misery. Some of the money we save might pay for math instruction that actually works.

Personally, I’d be thrilled if parents took over the schools again. Maybe the school boards should be broken up and replaced by school or district parent councils, covering smaller geographic areas that are open to all students. Let the principal, the teachers and the parents run the schools. Let the education ministry hold them accountable for results. Give extra funding to schools that serve less-advantaged kids. Resist the triumph of the bureaucratic education state.

And make those wretched bullies at the TDSB take a timeout.

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