corporate and think-tank researcher

Donald Gutstein

08 Mar '04

The Fraser institute’s Plan to Undercut Public Schools

Its ‘report cards’ in The Province are divisive propaganda — and more about helping privatizers than the poor.

St. George’s School sits among the Mercedes-Benz’s and Japanese Maples of west side Dunbar, just steps away from the forest trails of Pacific Spirit Park. The two buildings of the private, boys-only school — one for Grades 1-7, the other for Grades 8-12 — are unimposing outside but crammed with the most modern facilities the deep pockets of the parents can afford.

It’s not easy to get into the non-sectarian Saints. Prospective students for Junior School must provide school reports, letters of reference, photocopies of any honours or awards, and an application fee of $100. They are tested in English, Math and potential for learning. (Applicants for Grades 6 and 7 write the Secondary School Admission Test.) For the one in five kids who makes it, tuition fees are $9,195 a year (after the government grant of $2,075). The students are primed for success and almost everyone who graduates goes to university.

The Fraser Institute has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to determine that St. George’s is one of the best schools in Vancouver, best meaning scoring highest on the institute’s controversial report card for elementary schools.

Tied with St. George’s for first place among Vancouver schools with a perfect ten out of ten are the other west side elitist private schools, Crofton House and York House for girls, and West Point Grey Academy; a small Catholic school on Nanaimo Street; and two west side public schools.

The pattern of the report card is clear: the top ten ranking public schools are on the west side and 24 of the 25 bottom ranking public schools are on the east side. Achieving the worst ranking in the city is Sir William MacDonald at Victoria and Hastings, where 40 per cent of students are First Nations and the rest are mostly new immigrants, none of whom traditionally do well on written tests, which is the basis of the school rankings.

Sharpening a wedge issue

These results are predictable. It’s no secret that schools which can pre-select their students will do better than those which must take anyone — special needs, ESL — who shows up at the door. Nor is it a secret that schools in upper-middle-class neighbourhoods where parents are well educated and have sufficient money to spend on their children will do better than schools in poor and working-class neighbourhoods where many youngsters go to school hungry.

So why do they do it? Ranking schools is a wedge issue designed to widen the gap between the well-off and the rest of society. The wealthy ask “Why should I pay for the public system, especially for the failing parts?” And the poor ask “I’m not getting a fair deal from the public system. Is there something else?”

That’s not how Peter Cowley, the institute’s director of school performance studies, explains it. Instead he points to little Tyee Elementary deep in east Vancouver at Knight and Kingsway. It ranks eleventh best in the city, ahead of upper-middle-class schools like Shaughnessy and Kerrisdale. Cowley says that Tyee “bucks the trend.” It is a crucial result in the report card’s quest for legitimacy.

When Cowley, whose background is marketing, not education, finds a school like Tyee, he flaunts it in the faces of the report card’s many critics. Yes, the controlled-entry private schools and the middle-class schools achieve the highest ratings, Cowley argues, but Tyee shows that the school itself — its students, parents, principal and teachers — can make a difference. That gets us to the object of the exercise: parents should use the report card to help them select the right school for their children.

Cowley uses deceptive claims to market the report card. “Some people think that success in school depends on how much money the kids’ parents have,” Cowley says. “The report shows that this isn’t true.”

But it is true and Cowley is likely wrong about Tyee too.

He uses one indicator of socio-economic status — the average number of years of education of the parents. At St. George’s, the average education of parents is 16.5 years, at Crofton, 16.5, York House’s, 16.1 — university graduation and then some. At MacDonald, at the very bottom of the list, the parents’ education level is 12.6 — high school. That’s the same as Tyee says Cowley.

That figure angers Tyee parent Andrea Reimer, who calls this measure of socio-economic status “dubious.”

Cowley starts with school enrollment data sorted by postal codes and then applies Statistics Canada census data to establish the parents’ education level. So if, say, 30 percent of the students have an address in a postal code area with a higher average education, that ratio will be applied to the school.

But Cowley uses 1996 census data, says Reimer, so the figures are eight years out of date and, “given the gentrification around Tyee, the numbers are meaningless.” Worse, she argues, “you can have fairly wide fluctuations in income or ethnic background within a few blocks. The data are not reflective of the community of parents there now,” says Reimer, who is also a Vancouver school trustee. If the Fraser Institute used accurate data, its Tyee story would require major retooling.

If you really want to measure progress…

Even the report card’s raison d’etre has come under fire. Cowley claims the report card measures academic performance: the higher the ranking the better the school. It is based on the provincial government’s Foundation Skills Assessment that evaluates numeracy and literacy skills of students in Grades 4 and 7. He also uses averages to measure the difference between male and female performance. Adrienne Montani, Vancouver School Board chair, has little confidence in these numbers.

They are “really narrow criteria” for judging performance, she argues. The data are being misused because “the FSA was not intended to measure school against school or individual performance.”

She worries about the use of averages and standardization techniques to end up with “meaningless statistics.” Some sample sizes are too small — there needs to be only 15 in a class and a few poor or good students can skew the results. Not everyone in some schools writes the tests, making school comparisons unreliable.

Meaningful assessment involves three ingredients, explains Reimer. “What is the context, who is the child and how is the child progressing with different teaching strategies? In the public system you can’t change the child, you can’t change the context and you’re not measuring the child’s progress, so the test is meaningless.”

None of this fazes the Fraser Institute’s Michael Walker. He seems to thrive on the controversy and has greatly expanded the scope of his efforts despite the criticism. He now ranks schools in B.C., Alberta, Ontario and, with the Montreal Economic Institute, schools in Quebec. He’s working with fellow right-wing policy entrepreneurs to expand the effort to other provinces.

The project would be ineffective without the assistance of mainstream news media like The Province and Montreal Gazette. The Province is a key Fraser Institute ally, turning over nearly 200 pages to the Institute’s detailed school rankings, as if it is providing a public service and not merely disseminating the think tank’s propaganda.

Leaked plan targeted schools

Propaganda? According to Australian social critic Alex Carey, propaganda is “communication where the form and content is selected with the single-minded purpose of bringing some target audience to adopt attitudes and beliefs chosen in advance by the sponsors of the communication.” The report card clearly meets this definition. The form and content is the report card itself; the target audience is parents of school-age children; the sponsors of the communication are the Fraser Institute and its financial backers; and the attitudes and beliefs are: take your children’s education into your own hands; think of yourself as a consumer and education as a market; don’t trust school board bureaucrats or teacher unions.

This is not persuasion, an airing of viewpoints around the issues of choice in education, with an attempt to persuade us of one particular viewpoint. Nor is it education, which leaves it up to us to reach our own conclusions. “It is spreading disinformation about the public school system so that people will see choice schools as the solution to the problem that doesn’t exist but they say exists,” says Montani.

The report card is a rare foray for Walker into the realm of grassroots propaganda. Normally think tanks operate at the “tree-tops” level, aiming their messages at the leaders of society, the policy makers (politicians and bureaucrats) and opinion molders (news editors and commentators).

Grassroots propaganda is usually the domain of public relations and advertising and its goal is to reach as vast a number of people as possible to change public opinion and bring it into line with what is desired by the propagandists. It bypasses the experts and targets people’s fears and anxieties. As Montreal Economic Institute researcher Richard Marceau explains, “by supplying tools that consumers can understand, appreciate and use easily when making decisions, you can change their behaviour.”

It began with the Fraser Institute’s leaked 1997 five-year plan, which outlined a carefully thought-out program of activity to become influential in education. “At the moment the Institute does not have an on-going presence in one of the central debates occurring in North America – namely, the issue of educational choice,” Walker wrote in the 21-page report. “[W]e have no continuing thrust into this area. We should have.”

Vouchers the next step

Seven years later, Walker has his thrust. Why? The inside front cover of any institute publication will tell you that the Institute “has as its objective the redirection of public attention to the role of competitive markets in providing for the well-being of Canadians.” Since there are no markets in the public education system, the goal must be to destabilize the public system and bring in market alternatives.

Walker introduced an inexpensive add-on to the report card program in 2000, the so-called outstanding principals awards. Three principals in Alberta and three in B.C. are awarded $3,000 each for “excelling” (based on the report card rankings) in three categories. The first is “academic achievement in excess of expectations.” What this means is that rural schools or schools on Aboriginal reserves are expected to do poorly and if one does better than the others, the principal gets an award. Another award is given to the principal of the school that has made the greatest “improvement” in ranking and a third award goes to the principal of the school that is “best.”

School ranking and outstanding principals are designed to move thinking about education from system-wide management — the school district — to school-based management — the principal and from a public system to a ‘marketplace’ of competing schools. The outstanding principals awards don’t refer to principals as principals but as “management practitioners who have produced excellent results.” Notes the Fraser Institute, “the principal requires the same set of management and leadership skills as is required by the chief operating officer of a substantial business enterprise.”

Awards ceremonies take place purposely in ballrooms of major five-star downtown hotels (far from where most principals work). In a staged event, the principals are brought together with downtown business types over a luncheon so that “we create a further link in promoting the development of sound management practices within school leadership.”

The next step in undermining the public system is to introduce vouchers. The Fraser Institute recently introduced the first voucher system in Canada, privately subsidizing some Ontario parents wanting to send children to private schools. The program is called Children First, implying that in the public system teachers and bureaucrats, not children, come first. The W. Garfield Weston Foundation provides private scholarships of up to $3,500 a year to 150 disadvantaged students in Ontario so they can attend private or religious schools. The program will support the children to the end of Grade 8. What happens to them later may be someone else’s problem.

Subsidizing society’s winners

Beneath the bland pronouncements about report cards, outstanding principals and children first lies the spectre of powerful people pursuing a political agenda to weaken the nation’s public schools and redistribute support for those schools so that privileged students are favoured over needy ones. Affluent parents can afford the value of the voucher and supplement it privately, whereas working-class parents have only the value of the voucher.

Vouchers are aimed at poor and disadvantaged families but we need to ask who will be the main beneficiaries of school choice. First will be the owners of private schools. So far in Canada these are non-profit societies run by parents such as at St. George’s. But if Canada follows the U.S. lead, the availability of huge sums of voucher dollars will attract the private sector, as it did in the U.S. The religious orders will also benefit since they will achieve major infusions of public funds to buttress their narrow and sectarian interests. The wealthy, such as Fraser Institute trustees, will also benefit since their private school education will be even more heavily subsidized than it is now.

Among the Fraser Institute’s trustees is not a single person who is poor or disadvantaged. Representatives of the families who are the targets of school-choice programs should be on the board so they can help set policy directions. But then, if the Fraser Institute was truly interested in the well-being of the disadvantaged it wouldn’t have spent a quarter century urging governments to redefine poverty out of existence and cut spending on social programs that benefit the needy.

No one can deny public education’s serious problems. But, as Vancouver School Board chair Montani says, “The purpose of public education is to create an open and democratic society by developing people with skills and abilities that allow them to live compatibly with each other. The Fraser Institute choice agenda will lead to a segregated society of winners and losers.

“That’s the opposite of what we want the public system to achieve.”

First published in The Tyee

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