By George Thompson

A number of factors paved the way for the Ontario government to launch its new “choice” campaign with the announcement of both gender segregated and magnet schools on March 26th through Chris Spence, the Toronto school board director and through the Toronto Star, which has become the mouth of the Liberal Party.

It came the day after the release of a financial crisis budget, which, in its imposition of  a headline-catching public sector wage freeze, represented the official severing of ties with teachers’ unions, as foreshadowed a few weeks earlier by the replacement of pro-teacher minister Wynne by a former agriculture minister. The new “Provincial Interest Regulations” have just cemented the government’s right to “intervene” based on performance—thus turning up the heat on those EQAO numbers another notch. Furthermore, the ministry had announced less than a week earlier, that an education “summit” is going to be held this September, featuring special guest star, Arne Duncan, the pro-charter U.S. education secretary, along with members from the OECD to celebrate Ontario’s entry into the global school improvement marketplace. Add this to the fact the government refused to alter its “school information finder” website, which encourages shopping for schools, and, voila, Ontario’s 407 Highway to the future is ready for traffic.

In the new era of fiscal restraint for public services (the “disaster” that is being used for privatizers of education everywhere to “capitalize” on a greater need for private-sector funding) the move to adopt an agenda of interschool competition was established as a perfectly natural response to “declining enrolment”. The Star’s Louise Brown writes:

“Toronto’s public school board is considering a plan to open four new specialty schools — one for boys, one for girls, a choir school and a sports academy — in an attempt to stem declining enrolment and give students more choice.”

Wait a minute, how will “choice” increase enrolment? Will it cause the birthrate to jump? Or is Brown saying that the Toronto Board is going to start poaching students from other boards? If so, won’t this “solution” merely add to the declining enrolment problem at other publicly funded boards. But even more importantly, there is that word “choice” being tacked on as a natural afterthought, as though it were a minor cosmetic improvement, like a paint job. A picture of a group of boys cheerfully kicking a soccer ball—boys like sports—gives the announcement a human face and invites us to join the spirit of competition.

Accompanying the good news is the usual parade of reasons for privatization-friendly preparations, none of which, of course, can ever include any mention of the real reason why such changes are being implemented. The P-word can never be mentioned, although Spence did come dangerously close by explaining that in view of the enrolment crisis, they are going to be “offering private school options in the public system.” Spence is quick to add the mandatory justification of a “crisis” for “it’s no secret 68 boards in the province are struggling with declining enrolment, including ours.”  Perhaps this could serve as a useful model for the other boards.

Next comes the mandatory “it’s been tested elsewhere” line,

“The move to an almost boutique option for learning, wildly popular in Edmonton, Chicago and New York, has been kick-started in Toronto by new director of education Chris Spence, who started a sports academy and two all-boy programs in Hamilton, where he was director until last July.”

Of course, not mentioned is the extend to which the so-called “almost boutique option for learning” is closely interwoven with the charter movement in Alberta and in the American cities, especially Chicago, where arch-privatizer Arne Duncan was mayor prior to being appointed Education Secretary. While the Star “reports” that the movement is “wildly popular” it is actually something which is highly controversial, and extremely unpopular in many American cities. Of course, it is no coincidence that these cities all face the same problems of greater poverty among inner-city inhabitants, and cities such these (not to mention Detroit, Los Angeles and New Orleans) have all fit well with the disaster capitalism model.

The clinching argument is of course that we are automatically justified in doing “whatever works” (or at least appears to work in the context of a province which measures the worth of its students by EQAO scores). As long as it gets the numbers up it’s right. Thus, if segregating students even by race (and the Toronto board already has an Afro-centric school) improves scores, it is something we have to do.

What is more, anything that promotes “motivation” to attend must be good as well: “Parents love these schools and so do kids; at our four high schools for the arts, parents tell me they don’t have to fight to get their kids out of bed – their kids wake them up to go to school,” said Toronto board chair, Bruce Davis. Thus, if students perform better or show greater motivation, then pretty well anything can be justified, including segregation by gender, race, or religion.

Typical pro-privatization media coverage will always allow a sound byte of minor dissent which itself, always being too brief and out of context, helps to inoculate the report’s hidden argument. Thus, parent group advocate Annie Kidder is quoted as stating that magnet schools “end up segregating kids along class lines as well as the specialty focus.” But her own position seems somewhat undermined by her confession that “My own daughter goes to an arts high school and to be brutally honest, I can see the division along socio-economic lines. It’s a hard balance to strike, between appealing to individual students’ interests and the overall good.”

But the best argument of all in the privatization arsenal is always that it is something that we are already doing, even though you didn’t know it. Spence, for instance, argues:

“We have four arts high schools (out of about 560 schools) – whoop-de-doo! And 10 per cent of our kids go to French immersion programs and 1 per cent go to alternative schools right now, so we’re not cannibalizing the system at all.”

Thus, by this logic, adding to the choice is the natural extension of having a few choices. But a few more choices will not change anything—it’s not like they’re adding up or anything.

Indeed, the report’s bottom line is that, “Already the board runs a smattering of girls-only and boys-only elementary classes where principals report improvement in many students’ performance.”

But it is even more interesting to note the way that it is nonchalantly revealed that Ontario already has a prototypical charter school in the form of “Toronto Catholic board’s successful St. Michael’s Choir School — a joint public-private venture with the city’s Catholic archdiocese.”

Thus, as the privatization moves accelerate in the coming months, Canadians should expect to see a lot more of the “it’s already done” argument emerging, since privatization-whether it comes in the form of charter schools or through business “solutions” to the ever-expanding accountability for “school improvement”—is never something the public genuinely asks for, but something which it must be convinced that it would have wanted anyway. Like the old Palmolive commercials, you can only be told “you’re soaking in it.”