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Examining The State Of Ontario Education

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According to the dictionary, a cartel is an association of manufacturers or suppliers with the purpose of maintaining prices at a high level and restricting competition. The provision of elementary and secondary public education falls into the category of a cartel in most jurisdictions, but the Ontario education cartel is more entrenched than most -- primarily because of provincial legislation that gives it a greater than usual amount of protection.

There are four principal members of the Ontario education cartel: the unions; the school boards; the faculties of education; and the ministry of education. In addition, there is an alphabet soup of other bodies that help glue the cartel together.

The Ontario education unions, especially the teachers' unions, are arguably the most influential members of the cartel. Their mission is to improve their members' pay, benefits, and working conditions, and this they do very effectively -- keeping education prices very high. These unions have huge political clout because they contribute millions of dollars to political candidates and parties every year, and as well they field an army of door-knockers and phone-callers at election time. Because of their political power, the unions can and do influence Ontario politicians to support policies that suit the cartel.

The Ontario school boards tend to be dominated by educators, especially union-oriented educators. The school boards had more influence over education prices back when they could set local property taxes, but these days their main contribution to the cartel is helping to restrict competition. This they do by assigning students to specific schools, meaning that most parents are at the mercy of a monopoly when it comes to their children's education.

The Ontario faculties of education work hard to recruit and train teachers who firmly believe in the cartel and are unlikely to break rank. The faculties are a critical component of the cartel because they control the certification that is a condition of employment in every Ontario publicly-funded school. As well, many of their graduates go on to assume important positions in the school boards, the education unions, and the Ontario Ministry of Education.

The Ontario Ministry of Education is the education cartel's enforcer. It safeguards its most crucial underpinnings -- for example, the teacher certification requirements, the forced unionization, the ban on charter schools, the provincial testing that covers up poor results, the school boards' ability to assign students to specific schools, the education faculties' iron grip, and the many measures that handicap the province's private schools.

Earlier, we mentioned an alphabet soup of enabling education bodies. Here are just a few of them to give an idea of the interlocking nature of the cartel.

The Ontario College of Teachers (OCT), originally intended to regulate the teaching profession in Ontario in the public interest, has been captured by the unions. Even though it has a majority of union representatives on its governing body and always advocates policies that favour the cartel, the OCT still claims to be independent.

The Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) is ostensibly in charge of assessing how well Ontario's public education system is teaching its students. In fact, the EQAO is largely composed of educators from the Ontario Ministry of Education, the faculties of education, and the school boards. As a result, the EQAO's reporting is heavily spun to cast the best possible light on the system and prop up the cartel.

The Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat (LNS) was designed to help boost student achievement. Like the rest of the soup, it is composed almost exclusively of former members of the big four, and its policies and recommendations reflect the same point of view.

Curriculum Services Canada (CSC), among other things, determines which textbook sets can be used in Ontario classrooms. It too is composed of former educators drawn from the Ontario Ministry of Education, the school boards, and the faculties of education. Even the authors of the textbooks approved by the CSC tend to be drawn from - you guessed it - the Ontario Ministry of Education, the school boards, and the faculties of education. Another closed loop.

Of course, it makes sense that educational institutions should be staffed by knowledgeable educators, but effective systems must include enough independent voices to provide checks and balances. Lacking independence, all of these groups and many other minor players work together in harmony with the big four to preserve the status quo in Ontario.

Since most of these educators enjoy well-paid and secure positions, they strongly resist initiatives that threaten their iron rice bowl. Ontario's elected politicians are well aware of the backlash that will greet any threatened change to the province's education system, and to date few politicians have dared to go up against the might of the education cartel. However, the situation is not hopeless.

No cartel lasts forever. There have been many other cartels in the past that have been disrupted, often by popular opposition and the resulting political legislation. Unfortunately, the chances of political disruption to the Ontario cartel are remote for reasons already mentioned.

Recent history shows us, however, there are other ways cartels can be disrupted. Typically these involve the use of information technology to restructure the service delivery process and drive down costs. Two very visible examples are low-cost airlines in Europe like Ryanair and Uber's challenge to the traditional taxi industry.

The services being delivered through our very expensive public schools are more complex but there's probably already an app for each of the concerns that defenders of the status quo will raise. In a companion article, to be published shortly, we will explore how technology has the potential to disrupt the education cartels.