Assaulting Public Education in Canada: Privatization Plague Spreads

Eugene Plawiuk

“I have no intention of increasing funds to schools, they should be looking for corporate partnerships.”

&#8212Gary Mar, Alberta Minister of Education, 1998

FOR THE PAST six years right-wing provincial governments across Canada have embraced the neoliberal agenda of “educational reform.” Four provinces in particular, Alberta, Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have led the charge in dismantling public education in favor of market-driven alternatives.

In New Brunswick the provincial government eliminated all school boards and created a super school council responsible to the Department of Education. Nova Scotia has been promoting Private Public Partnerships, leaseback programs where a corporation builds and sponsors schools which are then leased to the school boards for up to fifty years, before ownership of the school is turned over to the school board.

Ontario passed legislation limiting school board funding, and restricting teachers’ control of curriculum. Right-wing advocates have been promoting charter schools and vouchers. The changes in the education act under Bill 160 have led to confrontations between the Ontario teachers’ unions and the government, which resulted in a province-wide strike two years ago.

The so-called reforms to public education have been driven by a privatization agenda set by right-wing think tanks and lobby groups like the CATO Institute and Heritage Foundation in the United States and the Fraser Institute in Canada.

Begun in the late 1970s, the push by the right wing has been to decry the so called “failure” of public education, with the push for “back to basics.” The attacks on public education (publicly funded education) gained strength in the 1980s under the Reagan government and Thatcher’s Conservative government in England. Tax cuts further reduced needed funds to public education, as a result the education system was strangled financially. Having created a fiscal crisis in public education the right wing was now able to mobilize parents genuinely concerned about their children’s education.

Competitive market models and decentralization were promoted as both alternatives to and for public education. In “Are American Schools Working? Disturbing Cost And Quality Trends,” a paper published by the CATO Institute in 1983, Canadian professor of economics at Carleton University in Ottawa, Edwin G. West says:

@9QUOTEFIRST = (P)rivate schools spend 50 percent less per pupil than public schools. The lower cost of private schooling is consistent with the theory that the costs of bureaucracy are lower where institutions are smaller and act in competition with each other. Meanwhile, we can expect that if the public system is seriously threatened by families migrating to alternative institutions, it will improve its quality at least marginally. Even the parental alienation and desertion from public schools that we have been witnessing recently may have provided stimulus.

U.S. readers should note that while private schools in the United States include Catholic or religious schools, in Canada Catholic schools are part of our public education system, fully funded by the taxpayer. Many of the American arguments about the competitive advantage of these parochial private schools do not apply in Canada.

The private school became the “competitive model” that would be used to create the choice movement in education. Vouchers, charter schools, and all the other reforms recently promoted to “improve” public education are all modeled on increasing private school access as an “alternative to” public schools.

To its credit the Reagan administration is reducing federal regulation of public education. Its major policy initiatives, however, are education vouchers and education tax credits. These policies are commonly referred to as “family choice” measures because they are intended to strengthen the ability of families to enroll their children in the nonprofit private schools of their choice. &#8212”Market Solutions To The Education Crisis,” by Myron Lieberman, CATO Institute Policy Analysis No. 75 July 1, 1986

In Canada the competitive model for public education has been embraced by right-wing governments, school boards, lobbyists, think tanks and the media. By far the most extensive changes in public education have been in Alberta, where a wide variety of right-wing education reforms have been put into practice by one of the most right-wing provincial governments in Canada.

Vouchers, school-based management, charter schools, school councils, corporate partnerships and lease back schools, have been introduced since 1993. Facing a declining resource revenue, the populist-talking Conservative government in Alberta created a debt and deficit crisis in 1993. They froze public sector wages at five percent and drastically cut public funding to schools, hospitals and the poor.

At the same time they changed the School Act to allow for increased public funding of private schools, which is now at sixty percent of what they fund public schools, a form of pseudo-voucher system where the funds directly follow the student. This reduced overall block funding to school districts, province-wide school-based management and charter schools.

The government reduced the number of school boards in the province by sixty percent and took away the boards’ right to tax, centralizing all funding with the Department of Education.

As a sop to concerned parents, and part of their attempt to politically challenge local school boards, the government introduced school councils. Parents were not deceived by this ploy, and while supportive of increased involvement in their schools, did not endorse the government’s sweeping suggestion that they act as a form of local administration responsible for the hiring of staff as well as for school finances.

Union Busting and Fightback

The Alberta government has further promoted the privatization and contracting out of support, custodial and maintenance services provided by in-house staff as a way of saving money for school boards deliberately underfunded by the government for the past six years.

As Jean Charest, at that time federal leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, said: “Alberta has set the national agenda for Canada.” No other province had taken such wide-ranging attacks on the very foundations of public education.

Despite the concerted attack on public education teachers, non-teaching staff and parents have fought back in Alberta and across Canada.

A two-year study was conducted jointly by custodial workers and the administration in Edmonton Public Schools. It compared ten identical schools being cleaned by in-house custodial staff (members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 474) and by private janitor companies. The study, unique in North America, found that private companies could not clean the schools as well as the unionized in-house staff, nor as efficiently.

In Calgary Public Schools where custodial staff were contracted out, the findings corroborated those of Edmonton. The school board and its unionized custodial staff (CUPE Local 40) found that contracted-out schools were increasingly dirty and had major utility overruns.

Four of Alberta’s fifteen originally chartered schools have failed after only two years of operation. Two were closed and two were taken over by the government or local school boards. In one case criminal fraud was found to have been engaged in by those in charge.

This has not dampened the promoters of charter schools in Alberta, who hope to use these schools to undermine teachers and support staff unions. Charter schools do not have to hire members of teachers unions, nor are their support staff unionized.

In 1997 the Alberta Teachers Association held their largest public rally ever, when 25,000 teachers rallied at the provincial legislature protesting the continued underfunding of schools. Parents, teachers and non-teaching staff have been mobilizing ever since, attacking the government over the resulting increased fundraising and user fees parents are facing due to the governments cutbacks.

Unions such as CUPE Local 474 in Edmonton have organized political action campaigns during civic elections to gain more progressive trustees on their school boards and challenge the government’s agenda.

In Nova Scotia CUPE locals and parent groups have fought against the Public Private Partnerships (PPP or P3’s) being introduced by the Nova Scotia government. Parents recently occupied a local school in protest over attempts to close the community school and ship students to the new corporate-leased school. Proposals for these corporate schools include having commercial companies such as Tim Horton’s Donuts or MacDonalds provide catering services in the school.

In Ontario teachers went on a mass strike in 1998, opposing the Conservative governments Bill 160. Modeled on many of the changes made in Alberta, Bill 160 attempted to destroy local school board autonomy and introduce school-based management.

The Toronto public school board, facing reductions in funding by the provincial government, faced a strike earlier this spring by CUPE Local 4400, which represents thousands of support, custodial and maintenance workers. The major issue was the board’s attempt to contract out their jobs as a way of saving money.

Eye$ on the Prize

As competitive market school reform is embraced as a way of saving costs by all provincial governments in Canada&#8212including the social democratic New Democrats&#8212educational corporations and corporations see a $6 billion industry that they would like to get their hands on.

Our own version of Channel One, the private TV company broadcasting into school classrooms in the United States, Youth News Network (YNN) was rejected when it first attempted to gain access to schools across Canada five years ago. Today YNN has returned, and is being embraced by cash-strapped school districts across Canada.

Despite parent and teacher protests, YNN, which offers ten minutes of news with commercials, is gaining a foothold by offering schools much needed computer equipment in exchange for their access to student consumers.

Coca Cola and Pepsi have invaded Canadian schools and universities with exclusive contracts. The Toronto Public School Board has such a contract with Pepsi, the University of British Columbia and the University of Alberta have contracts with Coke. These exclusive contracts mean that the only beverages allowed in the district or on the campus is that supplied by either Coke or Pepsi. In return, schools and universities are offered scholarship funds.

The corporate and right-wing agenda is clear, to recreate public education in the corporate image, to create market- driven schools. But resistance to these corporate contracts&#8212whether YNN, Coke or Pepsi&#8212have been vocal and public. The resistance is being led both by teachers’ unions and the non-teaching staff unions, as well as by concerned parents and students.

For this reason most of the voracious attacks on public education by the Canadian right wing (like its American counterparts) has focused on the need to bust the unions. In the CATO Institute’s own words:

The vast majority of proposed reforms either are subject to bargaining or would affect teacher unions in major ways, whether or not subject to bargaining. Proposals for a longer school year, a longer school day, more individual attention to pupils after school, more teacher-parent conferences, restrictions on courses taken for salary credit, deletion or reduction of some non-academic subjects, easier dismissal of incompetent teachers, and more in-service training for teachers would adversely affect the terms and conditions of teacher employment.

Instead of employing teachers to provide instruction, school boards might contract with private profit-making companies to provide it. Such an approach would not provide individual parents with consumer choice, but it could have several advantages over family-choice measures where profit-making schools were not feasible. In any event, contracting out and family choice could coexist.

Contracting out in education is not new. Many school districts already contract out transportation, food service, testing, data processing, printing, legal services, labor negotiations, and a host of other services. &#8212”Market Solutions To The Education Crisis,” by Myron Lieberman, 1986, op cit.

The agenda that has gained dominance with many of Canada’s provincial governments is influenced by the changes in trading relations between Canada and the United States. The neoliberal trade agenda demands that all forms of public services be open to privatization. Whether it is our schools or our hospitals, Canada’s public services are being challenged to become market driven. Our struggle as workers and citizens is a struggle to protect our publicly funded services from this neoliberal agenda.

ATC 82, September-October 1999

1 comment

  1. Privatization of our education system is real and is underway. What I’m witnessing is corporations methodically muscling their way in via our government who is selling us out once again to big business. Privatization is ultimately going to do nothing but dumb down our society- create an even wider gap between the rich and poor. An educated person always has an advantage over one who is not. The only way to ensure that our population is educated is through a publicly funded system – not private institutions that only the rich can afford. I’m writing an article on the history of public education – hoping to bring awareness to people that public education has not always been around – it was hard won and now covertly being dismantled before our eyes – just like Medicare is. Have you any sources on when public education was instituted in Canada? I’m having a hard time finding such facts that I believe are vital. Thanks, Rena

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