Last week, Toronto human rights lawyer Julian Falconer released a report which was the product of an investigation ordered by the Toronto District School Board. Mr. Falconer headed a panel which looked into conditions in Toronto's public schools, after fifteen year old Jordan Manners was shot to death inside C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute. The report has caused waves throughout the system. Mr. Falconer and his colleagues found that "a culture of violence" exists in some public schools; and, in a press conference, he expressed the opinion that Jordan Manners died of " flat neglect, pure neglect."
Moreover, Falconer laid the blame for the present situation squarely at the feet of former premier Mike Harris and the policies he and his minions instituted in the last half of the last decade. "The Tory government of the late 1990's," Falconer wrote,"embarked on a deliberate course designed to net out 'equity' from the equation."
What that meant is practice was that the province assumed all funding for public education. School boards had no control over their source of funds, and no flexibility to meet individual needs. Each school board was funded by a formula which linked the number of students in a system to the amount of money the system received. Communities, which for years had looked enviously at the rich tax base Toronto's business and manufacturing communities provided the city's schools, felt that a blow had been struck for fairness.
But, for the board which served the province's largest immigrant community, the reality was that the support systems for new immigrants and economically disadvantaged students were gutted, because the money to support those systems disappeared. The Harris government decreed that guidance counsellors, social workers and after school programs were non-essential services.
On top of its new financial constraints, the board found that it had to apply a new Ministry of Education initiative called The Safe Schools Act . Falconer found that the consequences of this piece of legislation were particularly tragic: "The impact it had on youth" he wrote, "particularly African Canadian youth, is a stark example of the fallout of this government policy." In the name of "safe schools," students were expelled in "droves." The Safe Schools Act was implemented by Harris' first minister of education, John Snoblen -- himself a high school drop out -- who honed his administrative skills at the waste management company he inherited from his father. Unfortunately, for most of the students who were expelled from the system, the career opportunities which awaited Mr. Snoblen did not exist.
Mr. Snoblen was famously videotaped by one of the functionaries at the Ministry of Education, telling his employees that sometimes you had to "create a crisis" to initiate reform in a system. Snoblen's strategy should not have been surprising, because the Harris program came right out of the play book authored by the bright lights at the University of Chicago's Economics Department. (See my post for November 3, 2007)
The Chicago School's program has been applied in many places throughout the world -- and the results have been universally disastrous. In Toronto, writes The Toronto Star's Jim Coyle, "with the attack on social services, the dearth of child care and after school care, in those most critical hours for the young and restless, with the closing of community centres, the most vulnerable have been left to sink or swim in the wildest of seas."
Within the system itself a new spirit of competition -- for students and resources -- was set in motion. This fostered an ethic of self promotion: schools developed their own websites trumpeting their accomplishments; and staff who sought promotions did the same. In such an atmosphere, it made no sense to have a public discussion of a school's shortcomings. And, thus, the Falconer commission discovered that seven months before Jordan Manners was shot to death, according to The Globe and Mail's Christie Blatchford, "several Jeffreys students approached a female teacher to tell her that they believed a young Muslim girl had been sexually assaulted by a group of male students in the second floor boys bathroom." The teacher reported the incident to the school's administrators; but "for eight months, until Mr. Falconer and his investigators discovered what allegedly had occurred in June last year, nothing happened." The principal and two vice principals have since been charged with failing to report the incident, as they are required to do under Ontario's Child and Family Services Act.
They may well have to pay the price for their "pure neglect." But the responsibility for what has happened in Toronto's schools goes much higher. Mr. Harris retired from government and handed over the reins to his finance minister, Ernie Eves. Mr. Snoblen abandoned his seat before the next election and headed for his ranch in Oklahoma to herd cattle. Like the Buchanans in Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, "they retreated into . . . their vast carelessness and let other people clean up the mess they had made." That job has fallen to Mr. Falconer and the members of his commission. They -- and the Toronto District School Board -- have a huge task ahead of them.