When I was in high school, the school building had been around for at least 20 years; they had built a new section to the structure 5 years before I arrived, but hardly gave us a sense of modernity. I was used to being in much newer buildings, like my elementary and middle schools. My high school building was much darker, with little ventilation in some areas, and an extreme range of temperatures depending on the seasons.
A split between students from my middle school meant that depending on where you lived, your were either filtered to the high school I attended, or an alternative one that had been newly constructed a few years prior.
Growing up I was a bit jealous of the other students; their school had features that trumped mine, like aesthetically pleasing common areas, and even of offering of programming little more diverse. It also seemed as if there may be relatively few things for administration to “worry about," like ventilation or temperature.
School boards manage hundreds of schools, with tens of thousands of students, and with it, a lot of money. In fact, with an operating budget of 1.92 billion dollars, the Peel district school board has a higher budget than the city of Brampton itself. The School Board Trustees are responsible for ensuring that money is distributed to all schools; to make things simple, a formula is used to determine how much a school will get in a given year. For example, an excerpt from the Toronto District School board (TDSB) budget allocation formula shows the following:
The general per-pupil allocation is $96.5 per pupil for Elementary and $150.5 per pupil for Secondary.
This budget is intended to cover: Classroom supplies (including audiovisual, software, etc.), Textbooks, subscriptions, etc., New Furniture and equipment (including computers requested in addition to the central plan), Furniture and equipment repairs and service, Fees for athletic events, Other: administration fees, field trips (charter bus and TTC trips), prizes, commencements, printing costs, internet connections, any other discretionary items.
Because schools are able to accept donations from their communities, budgets for some schools exceed these base calculations. Each school is incentivized to use the money in its budget or risk have it going back to the board at the end of the year.
But what happens when your school has many more repairs, than your neighbouring school down the road? Especially for buildings with older infrastructure and classrooms around for 20 years? How does that affect the opportunities for athletic events, field trips or even updated catalogue of books among students who attend different schools?
Opportunity gaps are a characteristic of inequity. Research has found that school facilities can have a profound impact on both teacher and student outcomes. School facilities have been shown to affect teacher retention, commitment, and effort. It is conceivable that this, in turn, has an impact on things like disciplinary practices, or special needs accommodations.
With respect to students, school facilities affect health, behaviour, engagement, learning, and growth in achievement. Fewer resources for teachers or schools may mean that some classes are more prone to disruptions.
I wouldn’t suggest that Ontario houses substandard school buildings. I am suggesting, however, that perhaps a new budgeting model for schools with older infrastructure and resources, should be considered.
The practical consequences of treating all schools the same through the use of formulas to allocate funds, mean that already disadvantages groups and communities may face compounding barriers and lose out on opportunities to achieve the success they are capable of. Not all schools, nor can all communities , be painted with a broad stroke. In doing so, the needs that these individual schools have may go unaddressed, ultimately impacting students.
Disparities in schools can be noticed by something as simple as looking at the technology they have. Some school boards don't track the succession of technology in their schools. With no contemplation of outdated technology and plans to replace these devices, it is up to the schools themselves to ensure the budgets they receive are managed well enough to keep up with changes.
This change begins at the school board level, by trustees being informed about the individual needs of their community schools. While this puts a higher burden on the school boards to contemplate how each dollar is used, I suggest it is worth it, to ensure opportunity gaps in schools throughout our diverse province, shrink.
Canada is often compared to the United States when we want to give ourselves a pat on the back. This past week a team of New York reporters visited local schools in Windsor, Ontario, noting that there was little income-based disparity between schools. While the disparity may be more pronounced in the schools south of our border, I’m not comforted in knowing that only some of our students face barriers.
Without adequate resources, it is challenging for schools to serve children with complex needs and give their student body equal access to opportunities. For many parents, this inequity that is deeply embedded into the school system, creates day to day challenges. Without school boards revisiting the way in which they allocate its resources, many students will continue to miss out on the high-quality education they deserve.