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Maddie Di MuccioWith declining birth rates leading to threats by the Ontario government that would force school boards to shut down and sell off under-enrolled schools, many boards are reportedly pouring millions into attracting and retaining students.

While some may question if this is money well spent, creating competition between the public, separate, and French school boards should produce tremendous benefits for students.

Some boards are putting extra emphasis on academics, such as offering an International Baccalaureate program. Others are putting money into sports and extracurricular activities for students who desire a better after school community. Almost all are making an effort to ensure their school facilities are well maintained and the schools are safe.

If we care about the outcome of public education and support the staggering amount of public money that is invested into the system each year, then we have to allow school boards to do more to compete with other boards and private schools.

In Ontario, Regulation 274 prohibits school boards from hiring teachers based on merit. All hiring decisions require boards to give preference to tenure or seniority. Regulation 274 has satisfied the demands of the teachers’ unions, but it’s controversial.

School boards should be given free rein to attract the most talented teachers available. With great teachers, we will see happier, more successful students. Naturally, that will lead to more interest in the school.

Parents should also have the right to choose which school to send their children to, as opposed to being assigned a school based on the postal code they reside in. It’s not uncommon for a grandparent’s address to be used when enrolling a child because that results in a better school assignment.

Almost a decade of Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) reports show a clear correlation between the results of EQAO tests and the average household income of the postal code. The schools with the best results were located in wealthier neighbourhoods. Schools with poor results were located in lower income neighbourhoods.

But if public education is supposed to provide everyone with an equal shot at success, continually assigning lower income families to poor performing schools simply isn’t fair. Allowing greater mobility within the school board to choose which school to send a child promotes greater equality of educational opportunity.

Perhaps the greatest tool that we could allow a school board hoping to compete is to permit the ranking of schools beyond the EQAO test scores. Currently, it’s the Fraser Institute – not the provincial government – that releases an annual report ranking the performances of grades 3, 6, 9 and 10 in the subjects of reading, writing, and math. While helpful, this is also a very limited view of a particular school’s performance.

What if school boards promoted student retention numbers between grade 8 and high school? Or what if we knew how many students in Grade 9 would graduate from Grade 12 at the same school? How many graduates at a particular high school would enroll in post secondary education and how many of those would successfully complete an undergraduate degree/diploma?

Private schools use statistics like these to help their enrolment. Why can’t public schools use data to improve a child’s academic outcome? Unfortunately, public school boards do very little to keep track of their alumni, making it difficult to gauge the success of their students. Ranking a school across the province on metrics such as post secondary enrolment and graduation rates would be very useful for parents in deciding which school to enrol a child.

Introducing a ranking system is also beneficial because it can motivate a school to pursue excellence by being the best in a municipality, board, region or province. When schools strive to do their best, then children benefit as a result.

Competition between school boards is something we should encourage. Yet, the decision of what school to enrol a child shouldn’t be based on inconsequential criteria. Let’s truly allow boards to compete by giving them the authority to make effective positive changes.

A decision to allow boards to recruit and hire the best teachers regardless of seniority, or allowing free movement of students regardless of postal code, or to ranking all public schools based on graduation rates are what we need.

None of these initiatives would cost millions to implement. Yet all three of these initiatives could go a long way to encouraging real competition – and choice – between school boards.

Maddie Di Muccio is a former town councillor in Newmarket, Ont., and former columnist with the Toronto Sun.

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