Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Private schools, the strike/lockout and inequality

Not all parents are worried about school closures in the current teachers’ dispute.
Christy Clark and thousands of others have opted out of the public school system and pay large fees for children to go to private schools. They are not affected by the strike/lockout.
But they’re still a factor. About 76,000 children are enrolled in private schools, about 12 per cent of all students. Their parents tend to be affluent, educated, and highly concerned about their children’s education. 
If their sons and daughters were being kept from school, they would be cranky. And they have much greater ability to make life unpleasant for government. They have the money, time, energy and commitment to raise a mighty fuss about closed schools or even missed days.
Private schools place them above the fray, and offer another reason to shell out the fees - $6,000 to $20,000 per year, typically.
More and more parents have been choosing private schools, despite the cost. In the last four years, public school enrolment has dropped about four per cent, while private schools have attracted about 10 per cent more students.
A decade ago, 9.6 per cent of students were in private schools. Now it’s 12 per cent.
The Liberals pride themselves on a business-like approach to governing and good management. But a business that was losing more and more market share to competitors would decide something was wrong and fix it. 
The government, and the people in charge of the education ministry, haven’t done that.
Nor has their been any serious discussion about the impact of an expanding private school system.
We like to think that we’re an egalitarian society and people with intelligence, talent and drive have a relatively equal chance at success. 
Quality public education is one of the most important elements in creating that kind of society.
A two-tier education system undermines equality of opportunity. The income of parents, not talent and effort, becomes a critical factor in the kind of life children can achieve. 
That’s wasteful for society; the talent of a significant portion of the population isn’t fully utilized. 
And it entrenches and increases inequality. 
There’s a persistent fallacy that inequality just happens, or is the result of economic forces beyond our control. 
But inequality in Canada reflects policy choices that governments have made. Cutting unemployment benefits or freezing disability payments makes some people at the bottom of the income ladder poorer. Reducing income taxes makes people at the top end richer.
The choices that have led to an increase in private school enrolments will increase inequality in the future.
That’s not to say government should ban private schools. Parents have a right to choose.
But the government now subsidizes private education with per-pupil grants at 50 per cent of the grants to public school districts. The subsidy could be 40 per cent. It could be eliminated entirely. It could be increased. Those are policy choices, and some would slow the move to private schools and reduce future inequality.
Or the government could look harder at why parents are judging the public system inadequate and address those issues. It could do research parents are choosing private schools and address those concerns.
None of this has a direct relation to the current labour dispute. The teachers’ union is seeking to improve working conditions and income for members; the government is trying to save money. Both sides talk about the students, but their own interests come first. That’s the nature of union-management negotiations. (It might that the best thing for students would be a 10-per-cent pay reduction in teachers’ pay, with the money used to hire an additional 4,000 teachers. No one could reasonably expect the union to agree to such a change.)
Nor is it a partisan issue. Private school enrolment, as a percentage of all students, increased at virtually the same rate during the last NDP governments.
It should be a concern. We claim to believe it’s important that all children have a fair chance at making the most of their lives. 
The increasing emergence of a two-tier education system shows we don’t actually care about that principle. Or, for that matter, that we recognize the unfairness and corrosiveness of increasing inequality.
Footnote: Not all parents who send their children to private schools are rich, not all private schools are ritzy. The current per-pupil grant to public school districts is about $6,900; private schools get $3,450. 

Monday, May 26, 2014


I’ve been doing some research that led me into the Toronto Star online archives of the mid-1950s.
It wasn’t any golden age of journalism.
But boy, they knew how to grab readers.
The headline at the top of the post was from the Star’s line story on June 25, 1955. It was screaming, two-deck head across the top of the page, and the story delivered. After a company golf party, the boss - drunk - insisted on driving home. He crashed and died, and other staff following in their cars piled into each other in the confusion. Three people were charged with impaired driving.
 The other headlines were just as catchy, in the truncated style of the day.
“Officer shoots self, give Vancouver chief leave in police probe.”
“Pollution, epidemic feared if strike at Kitchener continues.”
“Peron’s police cheer as young Catholics die defending churches.”
“Gored by bull, Burks Falls farmer dies.”
“Thought help cries game, girls let chum drown.”
“Mystery germ hits Alberta, halts operations.” (Antibiotic-resistant staph infections were already a problem in hospitals.)
And my favorite, “Swimming wolf fights to death with fishermen.” (In fact, the fishermen were in a boat and clubbed the wolf with a paddle, hit it with an anchor, dragged it to shore and, when the animal still wasn’t dead, cut its throat.)
The main art was two photos under the headline “Canadian Girls Win Acclaim for Golf and Posture.” 
All in, there were 16 stories and two fairly large illustrations.
I checked the Star’s current front page the same day I looked at the 1955 paper.
It had four stories. (There are also teasers for inside basketball coverage and coverage of the latest popes to be deemed saints.)
The line story head was “Condo failed to deliver on sales pitch, owners claim.” The other heads were “Under this immigration law, anyone can be a terrorist,” “Special needs kids told to stay home” and “Ukraine crisis: Insurgents in east hold dozens hostage.” 
They are all OK stories. But put them up against the 1955 page, and they seem, well, dull. And instead of a groaning smorgasbord, readers get a limited set menu.
In fairness, the page today is about 40 per cent smaller. Newspapers have been steadily making the page shorter and narrower to reduce newsprint costs. (And for reader convenience, of course, though mostly to save money.)
But still, even with the reduced page size, the editors in 1955 would have presented eight or nine stories. 
A few thoughts leap out. 
First, the people who go on about the great quality journalism in the old days - a decade ago, 40 years ago, a hundred years ago - haven’t actually read the old papers. Then, as now, there was some fine work, a lot of average work and some hackery. 
Second, the papers were a heck of a lot more entertaining and interesting. A story about a killer wolf isn’t great journalism. But it is the kind of item that people will talk about at work, which means that if you don’t read the paper, you’re left out of the conversation.
And third, the 1950s approach seems well-suited to the digital age - generate a lot of different items, package them and troll for readers. A print version of BuzzFeed.
So why did newspapers move away from a formula that worked? Partly, we decided people were getting the headlines and quick hits of a 16-story front page from radio and TV. (This was pre-Internet, though radio had certainly been around for a long time.) The theory was that we would offer more depth to retain readers.
But that also aligned nicely with the work a new generation of university-educated journalists said they wanted to do - in-depth stories about big issues. That’s important, but it doesn’t serve much purpose if people aren’t reading the pieces. 
It would be harder to take the same approach now. You would need lots of keen reporters to chase down the story of the drunken office golf outing gone wrong, and police sources willing to talk. Newspapers can’t afford the reporters, and police would refer you to a communications staffer who would confirm a crash was under investigation and little more.
And the fishermen would likely have grabbed a video of their heroic efforts to kill the wolf, posted it and it would have reached two million views on various platforms and aggregators within 12 hours.
Still, the old Star page is a reminder that in the discussions about newspaper readership (print and online), we should be considering the possibility that some people aren’t reading because we’re not interesting enough.