Tuesday, November 2, 2010

I TOLD You School Libraries Were Underfunded....

A nice fat article in today's National Post says it all. "School Councils Forced to Focus on Fundraising."

And they're not just fundraising for decorations for the school prom. They're fundraising for basic school supplies. Textbooks. Library books.

In fact, according to the survey conducted by People for Education, more than half of Ontario's school councils use their fundraising dollars to buy books for the school library.

Why? For obvious reasons - the Ministry of Education is not adequately funding schools and school libraries. It hasn't been for years. And parent councils are left to pick up the slack. A secret tax on parents.

There are major equity issues here. We've all known it for years - if you live in a "better" neighbourhood, parents will fundraise extensively to fill the gap left by the Ministry underfunding. At my own kids' former elementary school, for example (they've now moved on, agewise), our parent council regularly raised $50K+ a year. That money was used to buy computers, rebuild our playground, fund school trips, and pay for on-going music programs, art programs and after-school programs.

That option  - raising $50K a year - is simply not available for schools in lower-income neighbourhoods. We've essentially created a two-tier system within our public schools, due to private financing withing the public sphere.That's a disgrace.

This situation burns my butt on so many levels. One, as a tax-payer, it distresses me greatly that my taxes are not being used properly. I know there was waste in the schools - in fact, as an entrepeneur who used to make my living selling school supplies, I have a first-hand grasp on exactly how much money had been wasted in the past. But still...there's something in between gross waste and bare bones. And yes, there still is waste going on too, but give me five seconds with the red pencil and I'll get rid of it for you, thank you very much. I bet most teachers and principals can tell you where the waste lies too, and do the same magic trick if they were given the chance.

Secondly, as a parent, it drove me nuts that I had to pay this additional tax - to the school council -on top of my regular taxes  in order to get basic services for my kids. And it IS a tax, that you will pay if you have the money. And let's not forget the tax on teachers themselves, who pay for many of their classroom supplies out of their own pocket. According to a study done by The National School Supply and Equipment Association, a trade group for businesses selling into the school market, teachers spend about $1000 a year of their own money to purchase school supplies. We're not talking cute desk accessories that are personal in nature either; we're talking books, pencils, art supplies, bulletin board decor, scales, math manipulatives and the like. When I sold school supplies to teachers, this was true right across Canada; I was frequently paid with personal cheques, and told "I won't be reimbursed for this."

Third, and perhaps most important, a public school system is for ALL our kids. Kids in lower income areas deserve the same quality education as kids in better off areas, and a public school system exists to make sure they get it. I'm no Pollyanna, I know that on the ground, things won't ever be totally equal. That's just not possible. But equality - equity - should be closer than it is now. We should at least be making the effort to ensure kids in less affluent areas have access to basic educational needs - school supplies, books, music, gym, art. There's no real future for them, or for us as a nation, if they don't.

For me, the biggest gap, and the one with the most longterm effects, is the funding of the school library. In a high-functioning school, the library is the heart of the building. It keeps the rest of the place going, by supporting every single curriculum topic. A library is the physical embodiment of literacy at work. If you don't have a functioning library, you cannot have a fully literate environment. If you think you can, you are shortchanging yourself, and the kids in your care. So while people yap about how they care about instilling literacy skills in the next generation, if the school libraries are languishing, you can be assured that it's just talk.

The Post story focuses on Ontario. But the situation described, that parent councils are making up the shortfalls in education spending in key areas like libraries, is by no means exclusive to Ontario. I see the same situation ad nauseum when I tour schools in every province and territory in Canada. I've seen it in the US too.

It's time to stop lying to ourselves. If we, as a society, care about literacy, we must recommit to funding school libraries at an appropriate level.

1 comment:

Because: Science!