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marcus gee

mgee@globeandmail.com

Doretta Wilson is a mild, middle-aged suburban mother with three grown children and a winning smile. She is also a revolutionary of sorts. Out of the cozy, knick-knack-filled home office that overlooks her Etobicoke lawn, she is leading a campaign to yank open the shutters of the education establishment.

Ontario schools are governed by a vast bureaucracy whose workings are often obscure to the public. Ontario is to spend $19.8-billion on schooling in 2009-2010, up from $14.7-billion when the Liberal government of Premier Dalton McGuinty took office six years ago. At the Toronto District School Board, Canada's biggest, spending is up $400-million to more than $2.6-billion a year even as enrolment drops.

What, exactly, are school boards using all that money for and is the public getting value for dollar? To try to get at the answers, Ms. Wilson spent months constructing a new website called Sunshine on Schools. It is an amazing resource.

Click on the Toronto section at sunshineonschools.ca and you find, for example, that the board's spending exceeded its revenues for the past three years; that it faces a liability for future retirement and other benefits of $438-million; that 752 employees make more than $100,000 a year; that enrolment has fallen by more than 25,000 students since 2003; and that the city's Catholic schools as a group score higher than TDSB schools in reading, writing and math.

Now click on the section that lets you compare school boards on everything from test scores to busing budgets. You find, for instance, that the TDSB spends about $10,900 per student per year, compared with about $9,700 in the Hamilton public board and the provincial average of $10,650. Or you find that 80 per cent of TDSB students passed the Grade 10 literacy test, compared with the provincial average of 84 per cent and a high of 92 per cent in the Halton Catholic board.

Not surprisingly, an information-hungry public seems to like the site. It has registered 19,000 page views since Ms. Wilson and her Society for Quality Education (she is the executive director and sole employee) put it up on Sept. 30.

Equally unsurprising, education's vested interests hate it. The union for Ontario's high-school teachers calls it a "simplistic tool serving a particular political agenda" - the agenda being to foster (horror of horrors) competition among schools and school boards. Colleen Schenk, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, accuses Ms. Wilson's group of an even worse thoughtcrime: advocating charter schools, now common in U.S. cities but anathema in most of Canada outside of Alberta. She says the site misleads the public by throwing out a bunch of data without putting it in context - the same tired charge that education interests make against releasing school-by-school test results.

Ms. Wilson admits the data is raw and says that people should not rush to judgment based on the numbers alone. But the site does empower parents and others to ask some hard questions of school boards. "What are their enrolment numbers like?" Ms. Wilson asks. "What is their per-pupil spending like, are they spending more money on transportation, do they need to spend more money on building, do they spend too much on supplies?"

These are hardly outrageous questions. In a ruling this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court questioned whether there is a direct relationship between spending and education outcomes.

Whether class size really makes a difference is also controversial. Sunshine on Schools shows that after the McGuinty government ordered a cap on class sizes in junior grades, the share of TDSB classes with 20 students or fewer rose to 78 per cent by 2008, but Grade 3 tests scores improved only modestly.

Big, hidebound organizations like school boards stagnate unless they are held to account by an informed public. Ms. Wilson and her organization are helping open them up to overdue scrutiny. Let the sun shine in.